Columbia Grain International (CGI), one of the largest processors of grains and pulses in the U.S., is approaching harvest of 2020 with an enhanced safety plan. This year, harvest will present growers with not only its usual array of safety hazards, but with a looming pandemic on the back of everyone’s mind, and CGI acknowledges extra precautions must be taken to ensure the health of grain handlers and grain producers alike.

William Spreeman, director of safety for CGI, emphasized that safety has always been a priority for the company, but in early 2020 with COVID-19 just in its infancy on the world stage, CGI decided it would be good to have a pandemic plan. As COVID-19 gained in media attention and inevitably ended up closer to home, CGI took it one step further and enacted an exposure control plan. Spreeman says the plan is detailed and offers guidance to all those who work at CGI.

“We approached this like a family. For our producers, as well as our employees, we felt it was imperative we put things in place that would protect them and mitigate the risk of potentially contracting COVID-19,” he added.

Americans have learned through the pandemic and shutdowns of several states that agriculture workers are more than essential – often critical to the function of day-to-day living in many cases. Wise to avoid the problems seen in the meat packing industry when processing capacity was diminished after workers became ill with COVID-19, CGI wanted to be proactive against the spread of the virus to ensure grain processing would not be slowed, especially during a busy time like harvest season.

Companywide practices have been enacted across all CGI facilities like hand-washing, social distancing, and wearing a mask whenever necessary. CGI has also worked to limit face-to-face interactions between growers and employees, which Spreeman says has been the biggest and most difficult change to adjust to.

“We have always prided ourselves for treating our producers like family and when you do that it means spending time and having friendly conversations. Unfortunately, because of COVID-19 we have had to subtly change folks’ behavior regarding those kinds of exchanges,” Spreeman further explained.

Thankfully over the years CGI has invested in technological advances that expedite wait times at elevators. Some processes, like grading, can be done almost instantaneously and don’t require face-to-face interactions. Producers can still enter processing facilities if the situation calls for it. At that point, visual reminders like tape on the floor and plastic dividers are used to encourage health safety.

Although COVID-19 has been an all-consuming phenomenon, it does not over shadow the importance of grain safety in general. Spreeman says as an industry it is better to remind people about safety in a precautionary and proactive way. If the simple steps surrounding grain safety are talked about more, the hope is that it becomes less likely for a devastating accident to occur.

“It’s pretty obvious when you look at the statistical data for things like grain engulfment, it really comes down to behaviors and people accepting risk. If we can change that, I think we can save a lot more lives and have a lot fewer incidents,” Spreeman noted.

Spreeman encourages all producers to ask themselves “what if” before they enter any situation that may have some risks. Being prepared for all that could go wrong is a proven way to mitigate the severity of certain dangerous safety hazards.  

The goal is always to try and avoid a situation that would involve first responders, but CGI understands that if an accident does occur, making sure rescue crews are prepared is critical. All CGI facilities do at least a once annual walkthrough with their local fire department so they can recognize and understand what is going on at those operations.

“The really good thing is these walkthroughs have a lot of overlap onto the farm. When we orient those first responders to our equipment they automatically get that carryover of what could happen out on the farm,” Spreeman stated.

Moreover, all CGI facilities have safety equipment that can be used by local first responders in the event of an emergency, as well.

In conclusion, Spreeman acknowledged how important it is to supply America’s food in a safe and reliable manner. There are many risks involved in agriculture, but CGI proves through their advanced safety plan if producers and processes work to diffuse risky situations, accidents are more likely to be avoided.