LAKE CITY, S.C. (WBTW) — It was 10 a.m. when one of Andrew Rupard’s former coworkers messaged his fiancé. Their mother was a nurse and heard that someone was trapped in a grain bin, and they wanted to make sure that Rupard was okay.

So, his fiancé called the main office for Southeastern Grain Company in Lake City. After being on hold, she was told there’d been an accident.

“I worked an hour away, and so I hauled butt there,” Rupard’s fiance, Kristi Czubernat, said. “The entire time, I didn’t know he was gone. I thought he was trapped in there and they were trying to get him out.”

When she arrived at the site that morning, there already were fire trucks, ambulances and news media there. She ran down the road until she was taken aside by police. It took another 20 minutes until she knew that he’d died — hours after the 8:30 a.m. time marked on his death certificate — and that his body was still inside of the grain bin.

In the year and a half since his Nov. 4, 2019 death, a South Carolina Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigation has cited Southeastern Grain Company for several violations, including that Rupard, who was the facilities manager, was not equipped with a body harness and lifeline to prevent him from sinking into the grain and that an assistant manager was not trained in rescue procedures in the event of a grain bin engulfment.

Czubernat said she never saw lifelines on-site whenever she brought Rupard lunch. She said she blames Southeastern Grain Company “100%” for her fiancé’s death.

“It affects every single person that Andrew has ever met because of their actions of not making sure that each of their plants and their employees were safe,” she said.

OSHA documents from a walkaround inspection with the company’s president and a training consult said that Rupard “did not wear the full body harness that was normally stored inside the grain silo office.”

OSHA then went on to recommend that the site “must acquire lifelines, rescue retrieval equipment, and require completion of bin entry permits” for those who entered the bin in the future.

In inspection documents, OSHA states that the accident was caused by an unsafe condition, but that the employer did not have knowledge of the unsafe act or condition. Southeastern Grain Company had “procured a lifeline to connect to a full body harness” when the OSHA compliance officer returned on Dec. 18, 2018, according to documents.

In addition to the citations issued to Southeastern Grain, SC OSHA has also found violations at two other companies who did business locally, including a roofing company where employees weren’t wearing harnesses while on a job and a Hartsville machine shop that had “deficient” inspection processes, according to more than 300 pages of records obtained by News13.

Southeastern Grain Company — Nov. 4, 2019

At 8:30 a.m. on Nov. 4, 2019, Andrew Rupard climbed into a grain load-out bin at Southeastern Grain Company’s Lake City location, according to SC OSHA investigation records. Once inside, he used a seven-foot-long iron rod to poke at the clumped grain. 

Southeastern Grain Company President Corey Barnhill told OSHA that it only took a sledgehammer rapping against the exterior of the load bin’s bottom dome to loosen up clumped grain so it could be poured into a truck, according to the inspection documents.

No other reason was given for why Rupard entered the bin, according to the documents.

He and another employee had been maintaining communication by yelling and banging against the bin wall. After they lost contact, the site’s other employee entered the bin to check on him and found Rupard buried face down, according to the records. CPR was not able to revive him and Rupard’s cause of death was suffocation.

Neither Rupard nor the employee who went in to rescue him wore a lifeline, according to the records.

OSHA was told that no one had entered the load-out bin except for during the incident, and there were no other accidents recorded at the facility, according to the inspection documents.

Southeastern Grain Company had a fall protection program that covered ladders and house areas. Most of the text of the program, along with others, weren’t site-specific, according to OSHA. N-95 masks were available for voluntary use when entering a grain bin. 

According to the documents, Barnhill told an OSHA compliance officer that full-body harnesses were required to enter the bins and that one was stored inside the grain silo’s office. No rescue lines or other retrieval equipment was at the Lake City grain silo site, according to the OSHA inspection documents, and there was no mechanical way to rescue someone from inside of the bin.

In Jan. 2020, OSHA asked for items related to safety, health and management systems “in order to anticipate the employer alleging supervisory or employee misconduct,” according to the records. It also asked for work rules, the effective communication of them, for the methods the company used to discover violations and for evidence that it did “effective enforcement when a violation occurred.”

“Management leadership was ineffective,” the OSHA records read. “Although there was a written policy, goals were not defined other than ‘zero accidents.’ The burden of management leadership fell on the facilities manager with little corporate oversight. Employee participation was only encouraged via their attendance at weekly toolbox meetings and other safety training classes. No completed employee training rosters could be provided.”

OSHA issued Southeastern Grain Company a citation on April 6, 2020, outlining multiple violations, according to the documents.

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An outside consultant did an annual site survey, and a 90-day corrective action plan started in 2018, “but little was closed out in 2019,” according to documents. A completed job hazard analysis was not done, documents said, and informal quarterly safety inspections were not documented.

“Little to no evidence of hazard prevention controls could be provided, other than covering purchases of PPE and a personal fall arrest system,” according to OSHA documents. “Fall protection system were not implemented for an elevated catwalk 30 feet above ground level underneath the load out bin. No emergency action plans or rescue procedures that addressed grain bin entry hazards such as engulfment or combustible dust.”

There wasn’t any evidence that a safety committee ever formed or held meetings, according to OSHA documents. OSHA was told that the site’s weekly toolbox safety meetings also served as the safety committee meetings because the site only had two employees.

OSHA found training documentation for one of the site’s two employees in 2016 and 2017, but not in 2018 and 2019, according to the inspection records. The other employee signed an affidavit stating that both he and Rupard had completed safety training about bin entry procedures, and that they’d attended safety briefings and webinars.

The initial penalty for the company’s OSHA violations totaled $24,800. That penalty has been reduced to $17,360 through an informal settlement. 

Additional documents, including ones about a follow-up inspection opened on Feb. 2, 2021 were not available at the time of publication due to ongoing investigations.

News13 made multiple attempts to contact Southeastern Grain Company. Calls made over multiple days to the company’s listed number were met with a busy tone, and a message sent to its email address went unanswered.

Investigations and Prevention

Most people view OSHA as complaint-based, said Kristina Baker, the deputy director of labor for the South Carolina Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. While it does evaluate complaints, it also offers free training and consultations.

SC OSHA conducts both planned and unplanned inspections. The locations of planned investigations is decided by using a system that prioritizes high-hazard industries and ones with high incident rates.

Unplanned inspections typically happen when OSHA gets a phone call about an incident. Fatalities, incidents that harm three or more people and accidents that hospitalized at least one person are prioritized for on-site inspections and visits. Employers must notify OSHA within eight hours of a fatality. Baker said coroners also occasionally call to report deaths that happen on job sites.

She said compliance officers announce themselves upon arrival and then find management. If there’s been an incident, that compliance officer will focus on the area where it happened.

“That is their first priority,” Baker said. 

Inspections may include interviewing witnesses and taking photographs of the area. Any hazards seen along the way to the incident site are also noted. Baker said some dangers can be fixed immediately, but others might take weeks because equipment needs to be ordered or training needs to be done. Hazards that are considered to be an imminent danger to employees have to be immediately taken care of.

Depending on what type of investigation it is, one can take between a day and six months to complete.

OSHA will determine an initial financial  penalty for violations. Employers can then go through an informal conference process to reduce that penalty, which can be weighed by what’s been done to fix or abate the danger, the company’s safety history, how many citations they’ve been given in the last few years and their willingness to work with OSHA to resolve issues.

A case isn’t closed until the inspection is complete, settlement agreements are potentially finished, issues have been abated and the company has paid its financial penalty.

Baker said SC OSHA provides free resources to companies to help prevent injuries. Those free resources include a consultation program and training available to every employer in the state.

“The great thing about our consultation program is that it allows the employer to really identify where some of their areas or shortcomings may be and allow them the resources to really help them fix whatever those areas might be,” Baker said.

Trainers can also come in to discuss a variety of topics. Baker urges companies to reach out to OSHA to take advantage of the resources. 

In 2019, 18 citations were issued statewide for not having a written hazard communication program, another 18 were for not having employee hazard communication training and another 18 were for not providing machine guarding, according to the 2019 list. Another 16 citations were issued for companies not having a “lockout/tagout” energy control program. Lockout/tagouts are essentially processes that turn equipment off and prevent it from accidentally being turned on.

The National Safety Council Southeastern Chapter aims to eliminate preventable injuries and deaths at worksites. It offers more than 30 types of workspace safety training courses in South Carolina and Georgia.

“Hazardous workplace environments can be extremely costly for employers, but that’s not because of potential fines from OSHA violations,” Wendy Padgett, the director of workplace safety and health for the National Safety Council Southeastern Chapter said in an email. “The real costs related to workplace hazards and worker injuries are far too great. Every worker deserves to make it home safe — every day. Tragically, that does not always happen.”

Padgett said the organization’s first goal is to train employees how to recognize and prevent hazards.

“Training alone does not avoid violations, instead it avoids the employees from getting injured or killed when done properly,” she said.

Other Investigations

In addition to the violations found at the ongoing investigation at Southeastern Grain Company, SC OSHA has also issued a handful of citations for violations it rated as “serious” at three other businesses operating in the Grand Strand and Pee Dee areas.

One of those is McCall Farms in Effingham, which has experienced two fatalities and two amputation incidents within a six-month period.

A February 2019 planned inspection into North Industrial Machine LLC in Hartsville led to the company being issued several citations, all rated at the “serious” level, according to more than 300 pages of OSHA documents. The violations included that a truck had a worn tire, that damaged mast cables weren’t removed from service and that some equipment in a workshop area did not have protective guards on it. Some of the violations were corrected while the compliance officer was on site.

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“The employer’s overall evaluation of the safety and health program was rated as deficient with more than minor deficiencies,” the documents read. “Employer failed to provide lockout tag out specific machine procedures as part of their lockout tag-out program. Employer also had deficient inspection procedures as part of their lock out tag out program. Employer also had deficient inspection processes that allowed hazards such as but not limited to forklifts available for use with safety defects and machines without proper guarding.”

The report notes that the company had verbal, annual safety meetings, hired an insurance company to perform safety audits and did periodic inspections of the facility, but that “workplace analysis was found to be deficient” and that the North Industrial Machine didn’t conduct surveys or have a program in place for investigating accidents.

The initial financial penalty for the violations was $12,325, which was reduced to $6,162.50 by an informal settlement agreement.

North Industrial Machine did not respond to a request for comment.

A month before the inspection at North Industrial Machine, SC OSHA conducted a planned inspection for Reyes Roofing LLC while it was working at the Sleep Inn in Conway. 

OSHA issued three citations rated as “serious” after the compliance officer observed that two employees weren’t using fall safety systems while working more than 40 feet off the ground, that a ladder was at an angle greater than 75.5 degrees and that employees weren’t given ladder training on recognizing hazards and how to minimize them, according to the documents.

The company’s owner told the compliance officer that the workers were in a rush to come back from lunch and forgotten to put their fall protection on, and that the ladder was set up at that angle because a large air conditioning unit was in the way, according to the documents. The report notes that the weather was cold, damp and windy the day of the inspection.

SC OSHA issued Reyes Roofing an initial penalty of $8,400. A letter dated on May 17, 2019 said that the penalty hadn’t been paid, and that “all procedures for penalty collection have been followed to no avail.” OSHA then sent the company to penalty collection. 

“We Miss You”

Kristi Czubernat and Andrew Rupard met when they were studying agriculture at North Carolina State University. After trying to date, it didn’t work out and he returned home while she continued her program.

A few months later, he sent her a picture of him with his dog, Angus, that said “We miss you.” They reconnected and moved in together after Czubernat graduated in May 2015. Rupard started working for Southeastern Grain Company in Mount Olive, North Carolina, as a trainee before applying for the manager position in Lake City a year later.

Kristi Czubernat and Andrew Rupard reconnected after Rupard sent her a photo with him and his dog, Angus. (Courtesy: Kristi Czubernat)

In 2018, they bought 32 acres in Timmonsville. He wanted a farm and animals. She thought they’d have two kids. He told her mom he wanted four.  

A year later, he proposed in front of the Pineapple Fountain in Charleston. 

“I saw the ring on his pinkie finger, and I thought, ‘this is not happening,’” Czubernat said. 

He died exactly six months later — seven months and two days before their June 6, 2020 wedding date. 

Andrew Rupard and Kristi Czubernat post for engagement photos. (Courtesy: Kristi Czubernat)

A few weeks ago, Czubernat sold the farm and moved back to North Carolina. While the property was their dream, she said she wouldn’t be able to handle a farm on her own and felt like the land was going to waste. Now, she said, it gets to be someone else’s home.

Rupard was a quiet man who kept to himself and was constantly reading books about history and politics. He had a love for woodworking, and had crafted Czubernat her dream 10-foot farmhouse table.

“He was honestly the best man I have ever met in my entire life,” she said. “He was my best friend and he’s never met a stranger. Anyone he’s ever met has loved him. The farmers he always worked with love him.”

Kristi Czubernat poses with a photo of her fiancé, Andrew Rupard, on what would have been their wedding day. (Courtesy: Kristi Czubernat)

She considers herself a widow, but because they weren’t married, she’s unable to take legal action against Southeastern Grain Company. She said his parents were able to get workman’s compensation, which they used to set up scholarships in his name.

The weekend of their scheduled wedding, both of their families and college friends came together, bringing campers for a gathering she said Rupard would have loved. 

Her sister took pictures of Czubernat in her wedding dress as she posed with a framed photo of Rupard.

“There’s kind of a rainbow in some of the pictures,” she said. “I know that’s him.”

Kristi Czubernat poses in her wedding dress on what would have been her wedding day to Andrew Ruperd. (Courtesy: Kristi Czubernat)