Grain Handling Company Sentenced for Death of Employee
United States Attorney Deborah R. Gilg announced that Farmers Union Cooperative Supply (Farmers) pled guilty and was sentenced on March 16, 2012, in federal court in Lincoln, Nebraska, for violations of regulations promulgated pursuant to the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, that resulted in the death of Donald Stodola, an employee at Farmers’ Stanton grain-handling facility and elevator.
On the morning of June 19, 2009, Mr. Stodola was found by another Farmers’ employee, lying at the bottom of the “boot pit” area of the elevator where trucks load and unload grain. Emergency personnel extracted Stodola who was pronounced dead at the scene. An autopsy performed on Stodola’s body revealed he had died of asphyxiation.
Air samples of the atmosphere taken within the “boot pit” area revealed reduced oxygen levels and increased carbon dioxide concentration that qualified under OSHA regulations as a “hazardous atmosphere,” or an atmosphere that could expose employees to the risk of death or incapacitation. An investigation by OSHA revealed Farmers knew of the testing requirements for permit-required confined spaces, and had developed a safety program and a written safety manual, pursuant to which Farmers was to identify and evaluate all confined spaces at the Stanton facility to determine whether they were permit-required spaces, and to enact appropriate safety measures. The Information alleged that despite this knowledge, and contrary to the requirements of the OSHA regulations, Farmers failed to test the atmosphere within the “boot pit” area before Mr. Stodola entered the confined space on June 19, 2009; failed to provide an attendant outside the “boot pit” area while Mr. Stodola went into the space; and failed to provide equipment to assist and facilitate Mr. Stodola’s escape from the “boot pit” in an emergency situation.
The criminal statute violated by Farmers provides that a willful violation of an OSHA regulation which causes the death of an employee is a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment up to six months, a fine of up to $500,000.00, or a combination of fine and imprisonment.
United States Magistrate Judge Cheryl R. Zwart imposed a fine of $100,000.00 and placed Farmers’ on probation for two years, during which time Farmers will be required to comply with applicable OSHA regulations, comply with the terms of the Administrative Agreement, and permit OSHA representatives to enter into Farmers’ premises and inspect them.
In June of 2009, the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, (OSHA), Omaha area office commenced a fatality investigation of Farmers’ facility in Stanton, Nebraska, and six months later issued citations to Farmers for willful safety violations in its grain bin operations. As part of the settlement agreement, Farmers has also agreed the civil violations will be affirmed, and Farmers will pay an additional civil penalty of $86,700.00 to the United States Department of Labor - OSHA.
U.S. Attorney Gilg lauded the efforts of the United States Department of Labor, whose lengthy investigation, conducted through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, culminated in the guilty plea. U.S. Attorney Gilg said “Protecting citizens from death or serious injury, particularly in the grain handling industry is as important as any type of case the U.S. Attorney’s Office handles.”