The federal government cited a Missouri grain company Thursday for willful safety violations and proposed a hefty fine for an explosion that killed six workers last October at a northeast Kansas grain elevator.
U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said in a news release the deaths at the Bartlett Grain Co. elevator in Atchison "could have been prevented" if the operators had addressed hazards known in the industry. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is seeking $406,000 in penalties in addition to the citations alleging five willful and eight serious safety violations.
"Bartlett Grain's disregard for the law led to a catastrophic accident and heartbreaking tragedy for the workers who were injured or killed, their families and the agricultural community," Solis said.
A contractor also was cited, and both companies vowed to fight the claims.
Kansas investigators previously determined the Oct. 29, 2011, grain dust explosion was accidental. Two other workers were injured in the blast in Atchison, about 50 miles northwest of Kansas City.
Among the willful violations, OSHA alleges Bartlett Grain allowed grain dust, which is nine times as explosive as coal dust, to accumulate and used compressed air to remove dust without first shutting down ignition sources. OSHA defines a willful violation as one committed with intentional knowing or voluntary disregard for the law's requirements or with plain indifference to worker safety and health.
The serious violations, defined as those with a substantial probability of death or serious physical harm, include claims that there was a lack of preventative maintenance and that the housekeeping program was deficient because it didn't prevent grain dust accumulations.
Labor Department spokesman Scott Allen said anytime there is a fatality along with a willful violation, the department's office of solicitor may consider forwarding the case to the Justice Department for criminal consideration.
"That has not been done at this point and no decision has been made on that right now," Allen said in a phone interview.
A call to the Atchison County prosecutor wasn't immediately returned. The offices of Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt and Gov. Sam Brownback had no immediate comment.
Bob Knief, the president of Bartlett Grain, said in a written statement that the company plans to prove wrong "OSHA's unfortunate citations and characterization." He said the company disagrees with claims that there was a hazardous accumulation of dust before the accident and contends the grain and dust found by OSHA was deposited by the accident.
"The safety of our employees always has been and continues to be our highest priority," Knief said. "The accident ... was the darkest day in Bartlett Grain's 105 year history. We always will grieve that we cannot restore these men to their families and friends, or their co-workers at Bartlett. From that terrible day, we have believed and stated that we were operating responsibly."
OSHA also cited Bartlett contractor Topeka-based Kansas Grain Inspection Services Inc. for one willful violation alleging a lack of fall protection for employees working on the top of rail cars, one serious violation alleging lack of a hazard communication program and one lesser violation alleging it failed to provide basic advisory information about respirators to employees. Those violations carry proposed penalties of $67,500.
Kansas Grain Inspection Services said in a written statement that it planned to appeal the citations. The company noted that federal law requires grain inspectors to examine rail cars before they are loaded with grain and that the only way to comply is by climbing on top of the cars. The release said the company was assured in 1996 that it wouldn't be appropriate for grain inspectors to be required to use fall protection equipment while working on top of rail cars because there are no fixed structures for workers to connect it.
"The accident ... was the darkest hour of our company's history," the statement said. "We're a small company and we lost two valued co-workers who were working at a worksite that we didn't own or control. Literally, they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The explosion that killed them didn't have anything to do with a fall and, in fact, they weren't even outdoors when the explosion took their lives."
The companies have 15 working days to contest the violations and penalties.
Associated Press writer John Hanna in Topeka, Kan., contributed to this report.