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

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.

The July 2010 case of Will Piper, Alex Pacas and Wyatt Whitebread, who was only 14, is representative of the risks of grain entrapment and the underwhelming levels of official sanction against rogue employers. The three boys were sent into a corn silo in Mount Carroll, Illinois to break up the clumps of moldering grains stuck to the walls. They were given no safety equipment and no training, even though full silos are notoriously dangerous and such safety measures are cheap and required by law. Whitebread was sucked under the corn first, followed by Pacas, who was trying to save him. Only Piper, who was also attempting a rescue, was badly wounded and got aid from rescuers in time. He survived—but it took six hours to pull him from the grain.

OSHA slapped the company, Haasbach LLC, with a $555,000 fine, one of the largest of its kind. The company contested and managed to have the fine reduced by about half. David Michaels, Obama’s OSHA chief, told NPR, "We now do triple the number of inspections that we were doing four years ago. We continue to issue fines in excess of $100,000 over and over again."

But the NPR report also found that, between 1993 and 2013, fines over $100,000 are frequently dramatically cut from the initial amount assessed.

The techniques for preventing grain bin deaths are not arcane or new. It’s hard to imagine a justifiable reason for grain operators to be unfamiliar with them. All that’s needed is a pulley system attached to a safety harness worn by workers who enter the storage bin. The lifeline must be operated by a trained individual standing outside the bin, who can pull endangered workers to safety. All mechanical equipment should be shut off while people are in the bin, mitigating the likelihood that the grain will be dislodged and suddenly bury or engulf an individual standing in it.

“I have not heard anybody say that the regulations are not adequate. I think the real issue is that there are some operators who don’t comply with them,” says Celeste Monforton, professorial lecturer at George Washington University School of Public Health. “When you have people who know what the regulations are, there should be zero tolerance. Given that these controls are very feasible and it’s a grave danger to workers, I would say they need to figure out a way to establish a policy that says this is a kind of fatality that happens, it’s a automatic maximum penalty with no reductions.”

Tom O’Connor, director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, recommends a blanket policy that would cover all grain bin operators, regardless of size, and that any safety violations should be considered willful (which would vastly increase the penalty) because of the widespread knowledge and understanding of the dangers and what can be done to mitigate them.

Rena Steinzor, professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, insists that the problem is OSHA’s mentality. She says OSHA wants to cut deals and convince operators to operate safely. “A very noble goal, but a goal for when you can inspect every workplace, it’s not a goal if you want to send a message,’ she says. Instead the agency needs to make examples: "They need to be throwing the book at these people, but they’re not doing it.” (OSHA declined to respond to interview requests for this article and would not comment about the possibility of changing enforcement methods.)

Purdue’s Bill Field argues that as things currently stand, OSHA isn’t the principal fear of the industry’s bad actors. Instead, “it’s been the attorneys who have had these very large settlements, into the tens of millions of dollars, that really raises everyone’s attention. You don’t want one of those: it's bad PR, expensive, and it takes a longtime to resolve.” But a Nebraska case from earlier this year shows the potential downside of that strategy: The courts declared that the family of an 18-year-old who was choked to death by grain in 2007, could not sue the company because the matter could only be handled through the workers’ compensation system.  

An August 14 OSHA violation cited Greg Sikes Farm LLC with two willful and five serious safety violations for a proposed penalty of $127,400. The agency inspected the farm this past February after two workers were trapped for hours in tons of soybeans. According to OSHA, Sikes required its workers to "walk the grain," the exact practice that resulted in the horrific Mount Carroll deaths, and did not provide them with safety harnesses, a plan in case of emergency, safe grain handling training, or an observer position outside the grain. But based on NPR’s reporting, there is a 50 percent chance that willful violations handed down by OSHA will be “erased or downgraded.”

There is no reason such deaths should be handled so lightly. We know how to stop the horrors of grain entrapments. If negligent operators in industry refuse to act, someone needs to make them.   

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