A farmer-owned cooperative in Wisconsin has agreed to pay $550,000 to settle federal charges that it exposed workers to the risk of being buried and suffocating in its grain storage bins.

The employer — formerly known Cooperative Plus, but now part of Landmark Services Cooperative — also agreed to increase safety training and resolve other safety flaws at four grain handling sites in southeastern Wisconsin.

As The Journal Times of Racine, Wis., reports, the settlement with the Occupational Safety and Heath Administration stems from an incident in February, 2010 at a grain bin in Burlington, Wis. A longtime employee who was working on a piece of machinery was trapped in soybeans up to his chest in 25-degree weather for four hours, and suffered serious injuries, before being rescued.

In August, 2010, OSHA cited Cooperative Plus for 14 willful violations, the agency’s most severe charge, along with 25 other safety infractions stemming from a lack of proper equipment and procedures. The agency originally sought maximum penalties of nearly $1.1 million, before eventually reaching the $550,000 settlement announced Monday.

A Milwaukee lawyer representing Cooperative Plus, Eric Hobbs, said the organization settled “primarily because they care deeply about their employees’ safety. Statements by OSHA notwithstanding, they’re very safety conscious.”

In a news release issued Monday, Mike Connors, OSHA’s regional administrator in Chicago, said, “There are well-known safety practices that can be implemented to prevent these tragedies. We are pleased to reach this agreement. The procedures and training that Cooperative Plus agreed to implement will ensure that these often deadly entrapments will not happen again.”

At least 26 U.S. workers were killed in grain entrapments last year, the most since researchers at Purdue University started collecting data on such fatalities in 1978. In August, 2010, OSHA sent a notification letter to grain elevator operators warning them not to allow workers to enter grain storage facilities without proper equipment, precautions and training.

STUART SILVERSTEIN

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