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We Know How to Prevent Horrifying Silo Deaths, So Why Do They Keep Happening?

Silo deaths are straight out of a horror movie: the regulations are in place, yet workers keep dying.
 
 
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In recent decades, American workplaces have become safer as many of the most dangerous jobs have been offshored or automated. But silos and other facilities used to store grain and similar materials have the gruesome distinction of causing one of the only kinds of agricultural workplace accidents that haven’t declined.

These seemingly harmless storage bins can rapidly turn into quicksand-esque deathtraps where workers are sucked under tons of grains. The consequences sound like something from a horror movie: Victims' lungs filled with corn kernels; every orifice packed with grain dust. Even though it's been an issue for over a century, and despite a decline last year, 2013 is shaping up to be an especially bad year. There are still another four months to go and one of the largest corn crops in American history to be harvested in the upcoming weeks.

“The number of incidents in 2013, for the first six months, exceeded the number of incidents we had for 2012,” says Bill Field, an agriculture professor at Purdue University who has tracked grain bin entrapments for decades.

“We are seeing a gradual increase in the number of these incidents across the country, even after all the attention that has been given to it by the media over the last three or four years. There been an incredible amount of trainings that have been done at both commercial grain facilities and with emergency first responders.”

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration issued letters in 2010 and 2011 to thousands of the nation’s grain operators, reiterating well-known safety measures, listing recent incidents, and warning of penalties. National Public Radio and the New York Times have both performed extensive exposes on the human toll of unsafe practices.

Still workers keep dying. Farms that employ 10 or fewer workers are not covered by OSHA regulations, which are crafted to exempt particularly small businesses. On August 6, Tim Taylor “became buried in more than 8,000 pounds of fly ash” (used to make cement) in a silo in New Carlisle Illinois. Charles Groh was smothered to death in a silo on his family farm in Fairfield, Illinois. In July, Roy McCarty died in Sidney, Illinois, suffocated in grain. It took trained firefighters three hours to rescue his body from the “nearly empty” grain bin.

On August 12, the United States Department of Agriculture predicted that “U.S. corn growers are expected to produce a record-high 13.8 billion bushels of corn in 2013” (349.6 million metric tons). That’s a 28 percent increase over 2012 and represents a reduction from the agency’s May estimate of 14.14 billion bushels. The next prediction won’t come until September 12, but even if there is a further reduction there seems little doubt that this year’s crop will be a record breaker.

The regulation of the industry is complicated. According to NPR’s recent in-depth investigation, in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity, about half of grain entrapments occur on farms, which are exempt from oversight, and half on commercial facilities. But OSHA simply does not have the resources to act as a preventative investigatory force: According to the AFL-CIO’s Death on the Job report there are only 7.6 OSHA compliance officers per million workers in 2011, a return to 1999 levels. OSHA’s budget is a mere $570.5 million.

Its punitive powers are limited, too. Under the OSHA statute penalties are set by Congress and have not been updated since 1990. These include a maximum penalty for a serious violation of $7,000, a repeat penalty is maximum $7,000, a willful violation incurs maximum of $70,000. (OSHA rarely assesses the maximum penalty.) NPR found the agency cut fines levied after grain entrapment deaths almost 60 percent of the time.

 
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