Associated Milk Cited for Worker Death, Faces Fine

Federal regulators say that the New Ulm-based co-op willfully ignored safety rules at its Blaine, Wisconsin plant; a co-op spokeswoman said that the worker who died failed to strap on a body harness designed to prevent freefall accidents.

Associated Milk Producers, Inc. (AMPI), a New Ulm-based cooperative, has been cited by federal regulators for allegedly violating safety rules and faces fines totaling $72,500.

The citations stem from an investigation following the death of a milk truck driver in AMPI's intake facility in Blair, Wisconsin.

On August 23, George Oberding-a 50-year-old driver for Wisconsin trucking company Bechel Brothers-fatally fell 10 feet from the top of his truck to a concrete floor.

In a Monday announcement, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) said that it issued a willful citation to AMPI for allegedly failing to fully implement and properly install fall protection for workers performing milk-unloading operations at its Blair intake facility. Bechel Brothers, meanwhile, was issued a willful citation for allegedly failing to provide proper fall protection for workers washing out milk trailers.

A “willful” citation is issued when an employer has demonstrated either “an intentional disregard for the requirements of the law or plain indifference to employee safety and health,” OSHA said. The agency added that AMPI demonstrated an awareness of fall protection requirements by installing adequate fall protection infrastructure at its 12 other Midwest intake facilities.

“Employers are responsible for knowing what hazards exist in their workplaces and ensuring that workers are not exposed to risks that could result in injury or death,” Mark Hysell, OSHA's area director in Eau Claire, said in a statement.

AMPI received two additional citations for not providing training, evaluation, and certification for operators of powered industrial vehicles.

AMPI spokeswoman Sheryl Doering Meshke said Tuesday afternoon that “fall protection equipment exists in each of AMPI's manufacturing facilities, and it existed when this incident occurred.” She explained that the cooperative has body harnesses at each of its intake facilities. While AMPI employees are required to wear a harness when working more than four feet from the ground in order to prevent freefall accidents, some independent milk haulers-including Oberding-have opted not to strap a harness on, which is how the incident occurred. Since Oberding's death, AMPI has revised its policy and now requires independent milk haulers to wear harnesses, Meshke said.

Meshke said that AMPI has scheduled an informal conference with OSHA to discuss the allegations surrounding Oberding's death. If the company wishes to contest OSHA's findings, it can do so after that meeting. Meshke said that AMPI will make a determination about how to proceed following the conference.

In addition to the willful citations issued to AMPI and Bechel Brothers, Bechel Brothers and seven other milk haulers that deliver to AMPI's Blair facility were also cited for failing to provide fall protection for their drivers during unloading operations. One of these companies, Von Arx Brothers, Inc., is based in the southeastern Minnesota city of Hokah, while the rest are based in Wisconsin.

Associated Milk Producers is a dairy marketing cooperative with about $1.4 billion in annual revenue and 3,200 members who operate dairy farms in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. The Blair facility receives approximately 60 milk deliveries daily.