Realism needed about grain handling

by Morton Sosland
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While it’s not unusual for one sector or another of grain-based foods to be under public attack for one specious reason or another, the present-day assault on the safety of grain bin and grain elevator operations deserves a clear and certain response, if not rebuttal. After all, the power of the global grain industry depends on the capacity, the efficiency and, yes, the safety of grain storage operations. To have these challenged as unsafe and even deserving of criminal prosecution, as has been heard in recent days, is almost the same as saying that a food system essential to global survival is a fitting target in a world that disregards how the basic food system works.

For whatever reason, the pace of assault on alleged safety faults in grain storage and elevator operations seems headed for a crescendo. Page one stories in several newspapers and extensive coverage in a series running on public radio are the principal features currently that differ in intensity from previous outbreaks that usually concentrated on a single accident. Much of the current coverage centers on tragic occurrences at American elevators where young and often careless work has resulted in disaster. Even though frequency does not exceed the past, the media has chosen the current period as if the industry is particularly vulnerable. No other reason for this attention has been identified. The only apparent story basis is combining different events into a feature firing public attention. More often than not, the article’s goal is casting blame on the operator.

From the point of view of this observer and the long experience of keenly watching how the grain industry and its companies have responded to these incidents, the current innuendos and sometimes outright demands for criminal pursuit are beyond the pale. Recognizing the hazards of large accumulations of grain, and the dust that is an integral part of this operation, may only lead any responsible person to be aware of the need for extreme safety measures. Firsthand observation of how individual executives behave and how companies operating these facilities place safety at the forefront, often at high cost to the business, provides convincing rebuttal to those who charge or infer that the grain elevator business is fraught with disregard for the well-being of individual workers.

No food sector has perhaps more safety challenges than the grain storage business, largely because of grain dust issues, but it is also true that no sector has devoted more time and resources than this one to preventing mishaps or awful events like cataclysmic explosions that the news media has attempted to describe as commonplace. Individual companies have not just named safety executives with responsibility for individual units as well as across entire globe-circling companies, but industry-wide associations have taken the lead in developing training courses and procedures as well as suggesting participation as the basis for membership. Along the same line, no company has ever been described as avoiding safety issues, and more than a few have selected leading executives to spend years in pursuit of the most stringent safety activities. It is a matter that has been accorded a huge amount of resources, and it’s dead wrong to imply that this is not the case.

Faced with the current barrage of misinformation and apparent allegations of violating safety regulations and even laws, the grain industry has a massive problem of how best to respond. Yes, accidents have happened, but there’s no proof that the number is unusually large or that the outcome is due to company or executive negligence. Considering the hazards with which the grain storage and handling industry must deal with on a continuing basis and considering just how this very same industry stands as the central core of an amazing worldwide food processing and delivery system, how much better it would be to recognize what has been achieved with relatively rare human catastrophe.

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