This interview is excerpted from a March 24 GRAIN TALK podcast with Bill Spreeman, director of safety for Columbia Grain International (CGI), Great Falls, MT (406-453-6505).
CGI, based in Portland, OR, operates more than 40 grain facilities around the northwestern states. The podcast was part of Stand Up 4 Grain Safety Week conducted by the National Grain and Feed Association (NGFA), Grain elevator and Processing Society (GEAPS), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the Grain Handling Safety Council (GHSC).
About 18 years ago, I began to work in the grain industry, specifically in South Dakota. I ended up in safety, because the company I was working for experienced a tragedy. They had a grain engulfment involving an experienced employee. He unfortunately died from that incident, and the company brought me on board to make sure that it never happened again.
Presently, I our of our Great Falls, MT office. Columbia Grain has 388 employees across Montana, North Dakota, Idaho, and Washington. We have about 8,000 customers who do business with us year-in and year-out. We are the conduit to get their product to market.
We focus on edible grains, pulses, oilseeds, and organics. We’ve been doing business for over 40 years, and that length of time has helped us establish relationships that are based on trust.
It’s important to have a presence and develop a high level of trust between our locations and my office. That means you need to be accessible. You have to be out and about and visiting the locations. You have to make sure that folks look at you as a resource.
If they have a question or an issue, they need to trust that you’re going to approach it in a calm fashion and come up with a safe alternative. If they’re facing something that could put somebody at risk, I would much rather have them contact the office and ask about it rather than forging ahead and taking a risk, and then have something happen that could possibly impact the life of one of our employees.
We’ve had a fairly long relationship with a vendor who does video-based training, Safety Made Simple. That is our baseline training that gives people an orientation.
One of the things we like about it is their staff is all oriented to agriculture. You can tell that they have experience in our industry. They’re always doing updates. So if there is something new that comes up, such as the challenge with COVID-19 over the past year, they come out with useful videos that are applicable to our industry and our employees.
There are a whole lot of companies that create safety training videos, but if they’re generic, it’s tough for our employees to make a connection.
Beyond that, all of our employees are required to go through hands-on training, where they actually go into the field and look at our specific equipment. They also must learn our policies and procedures, and we have over 30 that are absolutely designed for specific hazards that we have in our workplace.
We make sure our employees have that baseline understanding of what things they could be facing in operations as they deal with our equipment. When our producers come in, we pride ourselves on providing a service for them, so it’s important for our equipment to be maintained. You certainly can’t rely entirely on videos for that.
Our employees generally come from the geographic areas where we do business. Some of them have a family involved in farming, or they’ve been exposed to agriculture. But our equipment may be a little different from the farm, so it’s really important for them to understand that it’s not acceptable to ever risk a body part to get something done.
We also want to make sure when we do repairs that they’re done properly. The minute you start to cut corners, that creates an issue that could end up injuring an employee or just damaging the equipment. So it’s important that our culture doesn’t encourage that. If that means we have to take a little c downtime to do it right, that’s what we want.
I’m an avid believer in behavioral safety. We currently are getting ready to launch our own customized behavioral safety program at Columbia Grain. It’s based on the philosophy of employees owning it and having conversations every day focused on safety.
It also empowers employees to speak up when they see something that might be dangerous. That creates a culture where we are all looking out for each other. More importantly, we all have the courage and fortitude to speak up and say, “I care about you, and I don’t want you to get hurt.” That’s what raises you up from being an industry leader to being a world-class safety performer.
The difference between a near miss and an actual incident can be a gray area. Near miss reporting actually allows us to identify root causes of the near miss. Just like with an actual incident, you can take corrective actions.
In our industry, there are a lot of belt drives. When people service a belt drive, they take off the guard, replace the belt, or they may perform lubrication on the system they are working on. Then, if they’re doing it frequently, they may forget to put back on the guard. And if somebody walks by and sees the guard is not there, that would be a classic near miss. Somebody could come by and have an actual incident with the point of operation.
So they would bring it to the attention of everybody and educate them on the importance of replacing the guard. This has happened pretty much across the board at any operation on any given day, because we have people who get busy and have competing issues to address.
As a safety director, if you network with other people in the industry, hopefully you can use their experiences and tragedies to get the attention and buy-in from management. But it’s a sensitive relationship, and you want senior management to understand what things can happen if we don’t invest in safety resources.
So when things happen in the industry, hopefully you can communicate that to the leadership team and let them understand that there is a balance. You can spend a lot of money on the latest and greatest things, but they don’t necessarily make the workplace culture safer. You can run those items safely, as long as you educate folks, and you rank the risks and hazards and address them.
That’s something that the senior management leadership team absolutely has to endorse. If they’re putting excessive pressure on folks to get by or take shortcuts, that does damage to the safety culture, and it can create situations where employees take excessive risks.
One of the big risks in our industry is confined space or bin entry. It can be going into a boot pit or a tunnel or any confined space. One of the key pieces of equipment you need is air monitoring devices. Use them religiously for all entries. The other pieces of equipment are the actual taglines and harnesses on the employees. Make sure you can monitor where employees are located inside the confined space and can begin to execute a rescue if needed.
One of the things we require before anybody performs confined space entry is that they communicate with a core group of people who authorized an entry. The first thing they look at is a permit, which identifies all the appropriate precautions that have been taken prior to conducting an entry. The very first questions to be asked are: “Do we have to go in at all?” and “Is there a solid reason why we need to conduct the entry?” There have been cases where we decided we don’t need entry. We can wait, or we can do something different.
The other thing solid procedures and communication does is let you know how often you’re actually entering bins and confined spaces. Columbia Grain has just a little over 40 locations. There are quite a few opportunities for going into bins or confined spaces every day. It’s important to understand how many of those entries are occurring and then making sure that you clearly understand where people are going in and that they’ve been trained properly.
It’s important to have an emergency action plan. It isn’t only related to engulfment risks. It could be heatstroke or a heart attack, anything that might happen. Emergency action plans will save lives. We document that the emergency action plan has been reviewed prior to any bin entry, and we require that each one of our locations do a rescue exercise once a year or more frequently, if possible.
Another thing that’s really important is to involve your local responders. Have them come see what a bin entry looks like. You don’t want them to pull into your location due to an engulfment, and it’s the first time they’ve seen what’s involved with bin entry.
Last year, we sponsored showings of the movie Silo for our producers at all of our locations. I think outreach is important for our industry, because we can impact the producers. It’s nice when they feel comfortable enough to ask you what equipment they should have c on the farm. So if a producer asks us a question or asks about resources, we’re not hesitant at all in allowing them, in some cases, to use our air monitoring equipment. Our producers’ families impact us as much as our employees’.
We have two unbreakable safety tenets that we live by.
First: There is never a thing that needs to be done in the workplace that warrants risking a body part or a life.
Second: If you see somebody doing something that you’re concerned about, speak up, have them stop, and discuss the problem. Make sure they recognize that if something went wrong, they could be injured badly.
With those two tenets, employees know they are looking out for each other. They know they are empowered to speak up, and they will not be punished for doing so. We will talk about it. We’ll figure out if it is indeed a risk, and it will be addressed.
If we’re going to have our industry and producers impact the number of tragedies that occur across the country, it takes a concerted effort. If we pool all of our resources and really focus on education, we can make an impact. We’ve participated in Stand Up 4 Grain Safety Week for several years since it started. We are absolute believers that this does impact our producers as well as the employees.
It’s important for us as an industry to continue the coalition, because one company or one agency can’t do it alone. If we do it all together, I absolutely believe we’re going to continue to see positive impacts.
One of the big hazards for the industry has been grain dust explosions. We continue to see explosions, but there are fewer fatalities and injuries related to them, because we are educating folks. There’s a much bigger emphasis on housekeeping, and employees are taking action. If they see that there’s excessive dust, they speak up and do the housekeeping, and that absolutely protects people and saves lives.
It’s really important to have good representative metrics. It’s sad when all we can do is focus on negative metrics like accidents and injuries. When you see fewer accidents and injuries, you can start to focus on other positive metrics. Two of those are safety conversations and safety training. It’s important that we establish those metrics and monitor them, because then we can see if outreach activities are effective.
Ed Zdrojewski, editor
-From May/June 2021 GRAIN JOURNAL