OSHA closes investigation into SC grain bin death

South Carolina News

Andrew Rupard and Kristi Czubernat pose for a picture. (Courtesy: Kristi Czubernat)

LAKE CITY, S.C. (WBTW) — A North Carolina-based company has paid $17,360 in fines following a fatality investigation into a grain silo in Lake City, South Carolina.

The penalties ranged from $1,750 to $4,200 for seven violations. Southeastern Grain was originally fined $24,800, but was able to reduce that amount as part of an informal settlement agreement with the South Carolina Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation Office of Occupational Safety and Health. 

The case was triggered by the November 2019 death of Andrew Rupard, the facilities manager who suffocated inside of a grain bin. 

WBTW News has obtained dozens of pages of documents from throughout the investigation, which said that the facility had a body harness, but not a lifeline, and that an assistant manager was not trained in rescue procedures in case someone became buried in the bin. 

The case was closed in late June after OSHA arrived at the facility for a follow-up inspection and learned that it had been sold in 2020. 

New owners

A compliance officer visited the Lake City site in late January for a partial scope follow-up investigation, which was limited to checking violations that were found during the original fatality inspection. The OSHA officer then learned that Southeastern Grain sold the facility, and others, to Smithfield Grain the previous August. 

A Smithfield Grain official informed OSHA that the company’s safety policies and procedures were different from Southeastern Grain’s, according to the inspection documents. 

The OSHA inspector told Smithfield Grain representatives that it had the right to refuse the inspection, which Smithfield Grain did, stating that the death happened before it owned the site. The official also said that the company’s legal department advised it to not let the inspection continue, according to the documents.

The OSHA officer said it would address the situation with the department’s legal team, and that there was the possibility it might pursue an administrative warrant for a follow-up inspection. Communication between OSHA and Smithfield Grain continued until June 17, when OSHA said that the follow-up inspection would be treated as “no inspection” because supporting case law agreed with Smithfield Grain. An OSHA spokesperson confirmed to WBTW News that it is not pursuing a warrant for an inspection because Smithfield Grain didn’t own or oversee the site when Rupard died. 

WBTW News reached out to Smithfield Foods, Inc., which Smithfield Grain is a subsidiary of, for comment about its safety procedures.

“Worker safety is a core Smithfield value and, as a pillar of the company’s sustainability program, is regularly measured against a number of established objectives,” Jim Monroe, the vice president of corporate affairs of Smithfield Foods, Inc., said in an email. “Smithfield performed extremely well against its 2020 safety objectives, as reported in its most recent Sustainability Impact Report. Regular employee training and safety inspections are key contributors to Smithfield’s strong health and safety track record. Our safety program includes extensive training for all employees who enter or work around grain storage structures.” 

Southeastern Grain did not return a request for comment. A website listed on the company’s Facebook page returns an error message.

Unsafe conditions

OSHA’s investigation into the Southeastern Grain facility found that while the site had a harness in its main office, there wasn’t a lifeline for it, according to the documents. Catwalks didn’t have fall protection or guardrails, the text in the safety binder was not site-specific and that there was no evidence that either of the two employees at the site had attended safety briefings or webinars. The site’s other employee later signed documents stating that he had received safety training. 

OSHA requested additional evidence in January 2020 “in order to anticipate the employer alleging supervisory or employee misconduct,” according to investigation records.

“Management leadership was ineffective,” OSHA said in the documents. “Although there was a written policy, goals were not defined other than ‘zero accidents.’ The burden of management leadership fell on the facilities manager with little corporate oversight.”

An analysis by an outside consultant said that a 90-day corrective action plan had started in 2018, “but little was closed out in 2019.” OSHA also declared the safety and health program as “deficient.”

The employees would use sledgehammers outside of the load-out bin to break up clumped grain after it rained, according to the documents. On the day of Rupard’s death, he and the other employee tried to rap the bottom of the load-out bin to loosen the grain. When it didn’t work, Rupard entered the bin with a poking rod. He was found buried facedown in the bin after he went silent while communicating with the other employee. His body was retrieved hours later — seven months and two days before his June 6, 2020 wedding date. 

The poking rod was gone when OSHA conducted the inspection and the officer was shown a piece of construction rebar, instead. 

Southeastern Grain told OSHA that was the only time someone had entered the bin, according to the documents. Rupard did not wear a harness. OSHA did not find a rescue line or other retrieval equipment during its initial inspection. The company later bought one for the site. 

The documents said that Rupard didn’t offer any areas for improvement during the most recent safety inspection. 

“He appeared to be a very safety conscious manager who knew the hazards of the job and took his role as manager very seriously,” Southeastern Grain wrote in response to questions from OSHA. 

The documents state that the death was caused by an unsafe condition, and that Southeastern Grain didn’t have knowledge of the unsafe act or condition. 

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