On Monday, March 23, 2015 – 24-year-old Josh Smith’s life changed forever.
Josh was working as a contractor at OK Foods in Heavener, Oklahoma. To maximize profits, the company runs the feed mill in continuous operation – 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. OK Foods refuses to cease operations even for potentially dangerous repairs, including “hot-work” involving the use of welding and cutting torches.
On this particular day, the plant hired welders from Midwest Automation to work on Grain Bin 84. Midwest Automation sub-contracted this welding job to Platinum Fabrication. OK Foods claims it did know about the arrangement. Furthermore, OK Foods says it would not have allowed Midwest Automation, which is specially trained, to sub-contract this dangerous work without prior knowledge.
Upon assessment of the work ahead, the welders asked OK Foods about taking some necessary fire precautions. They requested the following:
• That turn heads which allow grain to drop from the elevator into Bins 84 and 85 be turned off to ensure no grain was dropped;
• That block-off plates be placed on the pipes that feed Bins 84 and 85 to prevent grain from falling into the work site inside Bin 84; and
• That a section of pipe be cut out to block off the bins.
Each request was denied by OK Foods! Despite their request being rejected, welders began the work anyway.
It is important to note the validity of these requests. While whole grain itself is not normally combustible, it can be explosive in dust form when there is an ignition source, oxygen, a dispersion of particles in sufficient quantity and concentration, and when confined. In the grain industry, this is known as the “fire pentagon.”
This perfect storm came together that day and changed Josh Smith’s life.
Josh was instructed by OK Foods to man a shovel and broom and clear the residue from the work area inside Bin 84 as the welders worked. Even though OK Foods had fire retardant overalls, Josh was not provided with this safety clothing.
As the welders suspected might happen – based on their previous requests – grain dust fell into the bin being welded. The dust hit a torch spark, ignited and created a fireball that engulfed Josh.
On fire, Josh ran from the bin. He fell to the floor and rolled on the ground. In agony, he blacked out. After brief unconsciousness, Josh awakened and ran to the burn showers on another level. When he arrived the showers were locked up. Josh ran to a sink, threw water on himself and blacked out a second time.
Josh was later airlifted to the Alexander Burn Center in Tulsa with second and third degree burns to his hands, arms, neck and face.
Every moment of Josh’s life since that day has been filled with pain. He’s had to endure skin grafts, extreme skin blistering, permanent scars and disfigurement. More skin grafts and surgeries await him in the future.
This shouldn’t have happened!
It is the result of a company putting profits before the safety of people, and of welders ignoring safety rules to get the job done. It is a clear case of gross negligence and recklessness. OK Foods and the welders knew the dangers, but ignored them thereby almost taking the young life of Josh Smith and, indeed, changing his life forever.
He is an unfortunate example of what happens when companies put the bottom line first. Josh’s life is changed forever. The scars will serve as motivation that drives him to make sure no one else suffers like he does, and that companies know there are consequences to reckless disregard for worker safety.