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News organizations tag-team investigation of grain bin deaths, employer accountability

The Center for Public Integrity, NPR, and the Kansas City Star came out with a triple-threat of articles this weekend describing the dangers of work in grain bins, reductions of employer fines, and criminal prosecution of negligent employers. The reporters spent months researching, interviewing, and piecing their investigation together — and the stories paint a picture about the need to do more to protect workers from the hazards of working with grain bins.

From the Center for Public Integrity story, consider:  

Grain storage in the United States is surging, in part because of the boom in biofuels. Yet at worksites, farmers and commercial operators keep making the same mistakes. Workers, some of them young, keep drowning in grain or  getting hurt.

The practice known as “walking down grain” is illegal. Federal penalties for employers who permit or require  it,  however, are routinely pared. Since 1984, OSHA has cut initial fines for grain-entrapment deaths by nearly 60 percent overall, an analysis of enforcement data by the Center for Public Integrity and NPR shows. And even in the worst instances of employer misconduct, no one has gone to jail.

Twenty-six people died in entrapments in 2010, the worst year in decades. At least 498 people have suffocated in grain bins since 1964, according to data analyzed for the Center and NPR by William Field, a professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Purdue University.

At least 165 more people drowned in wagons, trucks, rail cars or other grain storage structures. Almost 300 were engulfed but survived. Twenty percent of the 946 people caught in grain were under 18.

A Center-NPR analysis of OSHA data shows that 179 people died in grain entrapments at commercial facilities —  bins, rail cars, etc. —  from 1984 through 2012. The fines initially proposed in these cases totaled $9.2 million but were cut to $3.8 million, a reduction of 59 percent. Given that some of these cases are still open, the fines could drop lower still.

The five largest fines, which ranged from $530,000 to $1.6 million, were cut by  50 to 97 percent.  

How do we address this?

An NPR investigation suggested that further regulation of grain bins may be in order. We agree.  

From the story:

Even worker safety activists agree, saying tougher enforcement of existing standards by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) — along with more criminal charges and more serious consequences for breaking the law — would help lower the death toll.

“Higher fines and criminal prosecutions would enhance our effectiveness and help prevent injuries and fatalities,” OSHA chief Dr. David Michaels told NPR. “We’d love to see that changed.”

But it’s an uphill battle. “Extending OSHA regulations to farms would likely encounter stiff resistance in Congress,” the NPR story reported. “It would be a broadening of regulation in an era in which existing OSHA rules are under attack.”

The Obama administration proposed a rule in 2011 that would have put dangerous farm work off-limits to young people- but the administration withdrew the proposal amidst pressure from the powerful agriculture industry.

Federal law already imposes age restrictions for grain bin work both on and off farms. Grain bins are defined as confined spaces. On farms, kids younger than 16 are prohibited from working in them; in commercial grain bins, 18 is the minimum age for work, NPR reported.

NPR also posted data on all of the grain bin cases it found in OSHA records.  

The Kansas City Star delved into the possible criminal prosecutions against the owners of Kansas City-based Bartlett Grain, where a grain elevator explosion a year and a half ago killed six workers.  

Despite the fact that Kansas is one of the leading states in grain elevator deaths, federal officials are not aware of criminal charges having been brought there, the Kansas City Star reported.

From that story:

Kansas ranks third in the nation in grain dust explosions, according to research at Kansas State University, with 64 since 1958.

The number of deaths from those explosions is harder to come by, but the DeBruce and Bartlett blasts alone have killed 13 workers just in Kansas since 1998.

Grain dust, which can be six times as explosive as black powder, can be ignited by overheated motors, misaligned conveyor belts, sparks or overheated bearings.

It’s time to prevent workers- often teenagers and young adults- from preventable, premature deaths on the job in grain bin entrapments, suffocations and explosions.

National COSH commends these news organizations for their steadfast reporting on these issues critical to workers’ health and safety in the grain industry.