Silo safety: Australian or imported?

By Kylie Wilson-Field, Journalist
Friday, 09 February, 2007

A high-profile incident in a Cootamundra silo has highlighted the many dangers associated with working on or around silos. Many Australian industries rely on silo use, but do they recognise the difference in safety standards between Australian made and imported designs?

Anyone who works with silos knows that safety is the number one priority. Silos are hazardous and people die every year in the process of filling and maintaining them.

Often, the machinery used with silos can be dangerous. There's also the danger with tower silos that workers can fall from ladders or work platforms.

At a practical level, silos are the most efficient way of storing bulk materials and are commonly used by manufacturers and in agriculture. But whenever anyone installs, climbs, enters, fumigates, fills or empties a silo, significant risks may be involved so it's important for workers to follow safety measures to ensure that accidents and even fatalities don't occur.

WorkCover agencies across Australia promote strict guidelines for working with silos and encourage continued maintenance and safety practices to ensure that no unnecessary accidents or deaths occur.

A case in point

Recently, the town of Cootamundra in NSW made national headlines when a combination of fire and toxic gases inside a grain silo threatened to explode. Fire authorities were forced to evacuate 1500 local residents for two days as the silo emitted potentially deadly gases.

Luckily, the situation was brought under control and residents were able to return to their homes unharmed. While an event such as this is rare, it serves as a reminder that silos can be dangerous.

Andrew Kotzur, managing director at silo manufacturer, Kotzur Modern Engineering and Construction, says silos made in Australia are equal to European standards and recognised internationally for their structural design. He believes that one of the biggest issues facing local industries is that imported silos are not required to meet Australian standards.

"Manufacturers of silos work to comply with Australian standards," Kotzur told FoodProcessing. "But it's an unlevel playing field with imported silos as there is no regulation on design structure.

"Imported silos are lighter and incidents of silo failure are more common. We are lucky that we don't have more fatalities from imported models. There are a significant number of imported models that simply fail or fall over."

Kotzur believes one of the biggest problems with design is there are no engineers who are specifically trained in the design of silos.

Lack of regulation?

"There have been problems in the past with design and also with the method of use. It's important for designers to comply with standards; for example, AS 3774 for the design and AS 1657 for ladders. But the problem is there is no regulatory control to ensure silos meet these standards," he says.

Some of the major incidents that have been reported in Australia surrounding silos have involved children, particularly on farms. Kotzur says it is incidents such as these that led to the Silo Manufacturers Association coming together with WorkCover New South Wales to formulate a code of practice.

"The interesting thing is that the code of practice is accepted across Australia and other states, particularly in Qld and Victoria," he says. "When it comes down to it, there are a number of risks posed to workers."

These risks include everything from confined spaces, low oxygen, toxic atmospheres, entrapment, dust explosions, falls from heights and structural failures to injury from equipment. "So it was important that occupational health and safety issues were addressed when writing the code of practice," Kotzur says.

The code of practice as outlined by Workcover NSW suggests that silo design needs to accommodate for the variations that can occur in the displacement of grain and other substances, and suggests that relevant design codes and standards be followed. It also recommends that new designs be tested under field conditions before they are manufactured for sale.

This is a sentiment echoed by Chris Kirwin, chief inspector from the Department of Consumer & Employment Protection at Worksafe WA. He believes that some accidents have occurred in the past due to harsh environmental factors like weather.

"It is imperative that the designer and manufacturer of silos adheres to guidelines to supply a product that is safe for use and that silos are regularly maintained, as they can be exposed to varying elements including changing weather and extreme temperatures.

"Silos can look safe from a distance but upon closer inspection they can be corroding from the inside," he says.

Silo safety: a duty of care

Worksafe WA strongly advocates silo safety not only in Western Australia but across the country and points out that manufacturers and suppliers have duties under OHS laws to ensure that the structure is designed to be safe for persons to use.

"Worksafe WA and other OHS jurisdictions publish fact sheets and 15-minute safety checklists to assist in focusing attention on the need to maintain silo structures and to operate them safely," Kirwin says.

"We are aware that some silo designers, manufacturers and importers have incorporated fall injury prevention systems (FIPS) into their current silo designs," he says. "An employer or self-employed person in a workplace has a duty to provide a safe working environment as does an employee who has a duty to cooperate with his or her employer in regards to safety and to follow safety instructions."

In 2003, Worksafe WA conducted inspections of silo manufacturers and suppliers in WA. This study enabled the regulator to offer guidelines towards best practice in safe silo design.

"Some recent innovations include the greater use of ground-operated silo lids, whereby a person can open and close the silo without the need to climb it. While a lot of good work has been done there is always room for improvement," Kirwin adds.

Kotzur believes that Australia must maintain its high standard of silo manufacturing in order to prevent future accidents and deaths.

"I am a member of an international organisation that monitors advancements in the grain industry and we hear about a significant number of accidents occurring in relation to silos overseas.

"In Australia, we have a much better safety record than other western countries as Australian manufactured silos are world class. I often wonder how we haven't had more accidents with imported models. Sometimes I think it's down to good luck rather than good design," he says.

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