The fine line between success and disaster can be razor-thin. Suppose your business’s operations create hazardous conditions. In that case, it’s critical to understand how one misstep or one overlooked regulation can impact not only the future of your company but the lives of your employees and the public.
Enter EPA and OSHA investigations that are poised to levy the consequences of non-compliance, which can vary from hefty fines and penalties to, in some cases, criminal convictions.
Earlier this month, a federal jury convicted company officials of workplace safety, environmental, fraud and obstruction of justice charges after a deadly explosion in 2017 killed five workers.
The case is one of the most recent examples of how hazardous waste mismanagement can snowball into an unmitigated catastrophe. It stands as a stark reminder that no company is immune to the far-reaching consequences of negligence. And when regulations are overlooked and standards ignored, the repercussions are not always financial.
A Deadly Mill Explosion
On Oct. 13, a federal jury convicted current and former officials at Didion Milling Inc. of several charges, including violating workplace safety and environmental laws, as well as fraud and obstruction of justice. In 2017, combustible dust explosions at a corn mill that Didion Milling operated in Cambria, Wisconsin, killed five workers and injured 14 others.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, among those convicted were:
- Derrick Clark, Didion Milling, vice president of operations, for conspiring to falsify documents, making false Clean Air Act compliance certifications and obstructing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) investigation
- Shawn Mesner, former Didion Milling food safety superintendent, for participating in a fraud conspiracy against Didion Milling’s customers and conspiring to obstruct and mislead OSHA for his role in falsifying sanitation records used at Didion to track and completion of cleanings designed to remove accumulations of corn dust at the mill
Corn dust is explosive, and because high concentrations are dangerous, federal regulations require that grain mill operators perform regular cleanings. These specialized industrial cleaning services help reduce the accumulation of corn dust, which can fuel an explosion.
According to the EPA, a permit issued under the Clean Air Act required compliance of the mill’s baghouse equipment, which is designed to limit the release of particulate matter like corn dust into the environment. The permit also required that a “responsible official,” or a senior manager with authority, periodically certify the mill’s compliance with air pollution control permit conditions and disclose known permit violations.
The U.S. Department of Justice accused Clark of falsely certifying Didion’s compliance without disclosing that baghouse logs had been systematically falsified to conceal permit violations, such as regular cleanings.
The EPA also stated that Didion Milling sold its milled corn products to food and beverage manufacturers, creating a sanitation issue. Excessive accumulations of grain dust can cause food safety problems. As food safety superintendent, Mesner also directed operations personnel to falsify the log to make it appear as if the cleaning schedule was being followed.
Didion Milling previously pleaded guilty to falsifying the cleaning logs and baghouse logs at the mill and agreed to pay a criminal fine of $1 million and restitution of $10.25 million to the victims of the 2017 explosion.
Sentencing hearings for all those convicted will be scheduled at a later date.
The Role Of Industrial Cleaning Services
The Didion Milling case serves as a sobering reminder of the catastrophic consequences that can result from negligence in industries dealing with hazardous materials … underscoring the crucial role that maintaining routine industrial cleaning services can play in maintaining safety, compliance and operational integrity.
In addition to equipment that reduces the accumulation of grain dust, there are many components of industrial operations that require routine professional cleaning, from industrial tanks to machinery, ventilation systems and conveyors.
Here are some of the key elements that define the role of industrial cleaning services:
- Hazardous Waste Management: Companies that generate hazardous waste must adhere to stringent disposal and handling regulations. Industrial cleaning services are often responsible for collecting, transporting and disposing of hazardous materials safely and in compliance with environmental laws.
- Cleanliness and Sanitation: Industrial cleaning services are tasked with the thorough cleaning of equipment, machinery, storage areas and other workspaces. This helps prevent accidents, reduce the risk of contamination and maintain optimal operational conditions.
- Preventing Accidents: Accidents related to slips, trips and falls are all too common in industrial settings. Industrial cleaning services help mitigate these risks by keeping floors and walkways free from debris, oil spills and other potential hazards. These services also include the removal of combustible dust, which, as demonstrated in the Didion Milling case, can be explosively dangerous.
- Mold and Asbestos Abatement: In certain industries, particularly those with older infrastructure, industrial cleaning services may be involved in the abatement of mold, asbestos or other hazardous materials. This is vital for safeguarding the health of employees and complying with workplace safety regulations.
- Equipment Maintenance: Industrial cleaning services often go beyond surface cleaning and engage in the maintenance and cleaning of critical equipment. This extends the lifespan of machinery, ensures proper functionality and reduces downtime due to breakdowns.
- Emergency Response: In cases of hazardous spills, leaks or other unexpected events, industrial cleaning services are often among the first responders. Their expertise and equipment can prevent a minor issue from escalating into a major environmental or safety disaster.
- Regulatory Compliance: Industrial cleaning services are well-versed in the regulations governing various industries. They play a key role in helping companies maintain compliance with environmental, health, and safety standards. This, in turn, minimizes the risk of investigations by agencies such as the EPA and OSHA.
By partnering with the top industrial cleaning companies, businesses can protect their employees, the environment and their own bottom line, reducing the risk of investigations that can lead to severe consequences.
Your Company’s Takeaway
The Didion Milling case serves as a haunting cautionary tale for any company that operates in hazardous environments, whether you generate industrial waste or rely on industrial cleaning services to maintain a safe working environment.
While the circumstances in this case are extreme, the fundamental lessons apply to a broad spectrum of businesses. Here are some key takeaways that should resonate with any company that wants to avoid the same tragic path:
- Compliance is non-negotiable. The Didion Milling case underscores the importance of compliance with environmental and workplace safety regulations. Whether you deal with hazardous waste, combustible materials or other potentially dangerous substances, adherence to the law is not optional. Ignoring regulations can result in catastrophic consequences, both legally and in terms of human lives.
- Honesty and transparency matter. Falsifying records and certifications, as we saw in this case, not only compounds the problems but can lead to severe criminal charges. It's vital for companies to uphold honesty and transparency in their dealings with regulatory authorities. Concealing violations or misrepresenting compliance not only risks legal repercussions but also erodes trust and credibility.
- Safety is paramount. The Didion Milling case tragically demonstrated that cutting corners on safety protocols can have deadly consequences. Companies should prioritize the well-being of their employees and the public above all else. Adequate safety measures and thorough cleaning procedures are essential when dealing with hazardous materials.
- Learn from tragedy. While it's crucial to learn from the mistakes of others, it's even more vital to take proactive steps to prevent such disasters. Your company should conduct regular safety audits, ensure proper training, and encourage a culture of compliance. Engaging in self-policing and preemptive corrective action can save lives and safeguard your company's future.
- Prioritize environmental responsibility. If your business generates hazardous waste or operates in an industry that requires environmental permits, the Didion Milling case underscores the importance of adhering to these regulations. Ensuring proper waste management, pollution control and compliance with environmental permits is not only a legal obligation but also a moral imperative.
The Didion Milling incident serves as a stark reminder that no business is invincible when it comes to EPA and OSHA investigations. The consequences of non-compliance are severe, ranging from financial penalties to the unthinkable tragedy of lives lost.
Take heed of the lessons from this devastating case and commit to a corporate culture built on integrity, safety and environmental responsibility. Your company’s future, the well-being of your employees and the trust of the public all depend on it.