Injury Inventory

FROM THE DECEMBER ISSUE: Insurance claim data show certain incidents occur more often than others in the ethanol industry. Policies, culture and rapid emergency response can help prevent serious injuries.
By Lisa Gibson | November 20, 2017

The most common workers compensation claim in the ethanol industry is for lower back strains, according to ERI Solutions Inc. From November 2006 to August 2017, more than 450 claims were filed for strains, almost 170 affecting the lumbar area.

“If you look at over the last 10 years, strains are No. 1 by a long shot,” says Nathan Vander Griend, president of ERI Solutions Inc., which manages an insurance company for the ethanol industry. Many of those injuries were caused by improper lifting, he adds. Materials handling is the third most common cause of all injuries, according to the data.

Employees being struck by or against something ranks as the most prominent cause of injury in the ethanol industry, with almost 350 claims in the past 10 years, according to ERI. Slips, trips and falls come in second, with just more than 250 claims. Absolute Energy LLC’s Rick Schwarck, president, and Tyler Schwarck, environmental health and safety manager, say slips, trips and falls are the most difficult incidents to prevent. “It’s tough to mitigate those,” Tyler Schwarck says.

Tyler and Rick Schwarck say Absolute Energy, located in St. Ansgar, Iowa, is above average when it comes to plant safety, and it all comes down to workplace culture.

Accident Prevention
“You can have all the policies in place, but it’s a culture thing,” Tyler Schwarck says. Managers and safety officials have two options when it comes to implementing their policies, he says. They can be coaches, or they can be cops; they can look for violations, or they can coach their employees on how to follow the rules. “I’m not saying one is better than the other, but I take the coaching approach. The coaching approach helps culture.”

Schwarck says, in his experience, employees are more likely to approach him with issues or concerns when they’re aware he won’t be handing out reprimands.

His coaching style includes daily interactions, but not in large group meetings. “It’s just being down at the plant as well as other members of management,” he says. “It makes the employees comfortable talking to management. They’re comfortable bringing issues to me.”

Aaron Betz, EHS manager for Western Plains Energy in Oakley, Kansas, agrees. “It must start at the top with the management for everyone to buy in. … Our message is to make sure everyone goes home at night. We want employees to be responsible for safety and own the program. If we can get them to work safely at work and home, they buy into and own the program better.”

Absolute Energy and Western Plains Energy, like many ethanol plants in the U.S., use the safety policies, programs and procedures developed by ERI for its clients. “Nobody is in the same stratosphere when it comes to ethanol or grain handling safety,” Tyler Schwarck says of ERI. “It’d be tough to improve upon that.”

But every plant is unique and must make its policies its own, Betz says. Western Plains also is in the SHARP program in Kansas. The program goes above and beyond OSHA policies, he says, with inspections and consultations from the Kansas Department of Labor.

Betz says pinch point injuries are the most common at Western Plains. The plant has had at least one small claim each year for the past four years, he says. But the facility has gone four years now without a lost-time claim.

No plant is immune to accidents, and “things just happen,” Tyler Schwarck says. “There is a risk when you get out of bed in the morning,” Rick Schwarck adds.

“We’re just proactive in correcting things before they become an issue,” Tyler says.

The Breakdown
According to ERI’s data for the past 10 years, lacerations rank second behind strains in workers comp claims, at almost 200, or 13 percent of all claims. Contusions, burns and sprains come next, with almost 160 (11 percent), 155 (10 percent) and 95 (6 percent) claims, respectively. Ruptures, dislocations, amputations and poisonings make the list, too, all with less than 50 claims.

Lower back injuries comprise 11 percent of the claims, fingers 10 percent, shoulders 9 percent, knees 8 percent, and eyes and hands both stand at 6 percent.

Struck by or against, the highest-ranking cause of injury, comprises 23 percent of claims. Same-level slips, trips and falls account for 17 percent, followed by manual materials handling at 15 percent, with about 235. Occupational diseases, hand tools, slips and falls at elevation, burns and repeated trauma to upper extremities follow at decreasing intervals.

“Some claims can end up being pretty costly at the end of the day just because of the amount of lost time,” Vander Griend says. “It can be ongoing. When someone really hurts their back or something like that, sometimes it’s a nagging they don’t really ever get over.”

The worst incident ERI has ever dealt with at an ethanol plant happened two days after the company opened its insurance practice, Vander Griend says. An electric shock incident cost $2 million, for the shock and subsequent burns and neurological damage to the employee.

The next most serious injury had nothing to do with the actual plant, Vander Griend says. An employee was preparing to mow the lawn at the facility, was drenched in gasoline while removing the gas cap, and accidentally ignited, causing severe burns. Another claim involved a foot amputation by a moving train car, and the fourth and fifth largest ethanol industry claims ERI has handled were caused by improper lifting, of a bag of urea and an I-beam, respectively.

ERI insures about half of the ethanol industry, and none if its plants have ever experienced a fatality, Vander Griend says.

Onsite Response
Slips, trips and falls are made even more dangerous when they occur in a confined space or at an elevation. Rescues of employees who have fallen within confined spaces are a specialty for the safety crews at Tactical Safety Solutions, located in Wichita, Kansas. The company has about 14 ethanol plant clients, according to Andy Hall, vice president of operations. Confined space and height rescue are crucial at ethanol plants, he says, and require specialized equipment and training. Contrary to popular belief, 80 percent of confined space rescues are a result of a fall or medical event inside the space.

“Most people think it’s that they get into the confined space and it’s a hazardous environment. We can mitigate that. The bigger danger is the falls that occur while they’re in there.”

Hall says the ethanol industry is lagging in onsite response preparedness for confined space and height rescues. “What we find at ethanol plants is that they have the tendency to want to use the local volunteer fire department because a lot of times, those plants are in rural America, where you have a volunteer fire department who is really good at fighting structure fires, but they’re not equipped or trained to do technical rescue.”

OSHA rules permit local fire departments to be the rescue standby for ethanol plants, but the response time must be seven minutes or less, Hall says. “If you’re relying on 911, you’ve really got to find out what’s the response time; what’s their capability,” he says.

Tactical Safety Solutions provides onsite crews around the clock for its clients, along with policies and procedures. The company has clients in the ethanol, power, oil and gas, and food services industries. Hall says since most ethanol plants are built similarly, his teams are familiar with the designs. “For the most part, we’ve become a pretty big expert in rescue and safety at these ethanol plants.

“It’s an added expense for these places that can get by with just checking a box for calling 911,” he says. “But that added expense can save them in the event of an emergency.”

While the crews are specially trained in confined space rescues and height rescues that involve rope systems, they also are medically trained and can help with other emergencies at the plants, too, Hall says.

Most ethanol plant accidents aren’t the result of OSHA noncompliance, Vander Griend says. They often occur in areas outside of OSHA’s purview, such as ergonomics and lifting. ERI’s policies identify those areas and recommend best practices. “It’s good practice to keep your people from getting hurt if you do these things,” he says.

ERI polishes its policies and procedures annually based on research on its claim data. And from a culture perspective, hiring employees who will actively follow said policies is a must. “We hire for attitude and train for skill,” Rick Schwarck says. “It’s how you encourage people to buy into the program willingly.”

Author: Lisa Gibson
Managing Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine