Needless granary deaths a persistent problem

Grain Storage on the Prairie

Photo by Macomb Paynes via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Last fall I posted about coverage in The New York Times of, as I wrote then, “the cause of a small but persistent number of deaths on U.S. farms each year: grain storage buildings, or—more accurately—employers’ failure to ensure that proper safety procedures are followed when workers are inside them.”

It was a great piece of reporting that helped bring to light needless and senseless worker deaths. I was glad to see the issue getting additional in-depth coverage last week from NPR and the Center for Public Integrity in a special series titled, “Buried In Grain.”  A number of audio pieces from NPR’s Howard Berkes aired throughout the week, and print versions are available online. I highly recommend them. As reported in the first entry,

on a stifling hot day in July 2010, [14-year-old Wyatt] Whitebread joined his buddies Alex Pacas, 19, and Will Piper, 20, at the Haasbach LLC grain storage complex. Piper had begun working there the week before, and it was Pacas’ second day on the job.

The boys carried shovels and picks as they climbed a ladder four stories to the top of the grain bin, which was twice as wide and half-filled with 250,000 bushels of wet and crusty corn. Their job was to “walk down the grain,” or break up the kernels that clung to the walls and clogged the drainage hole at the bottom of the bin.

The work went well at first, with the boys shoveling corn toward a cone-shaped hole at the center of the bin. But around 9:45 a.m., Whitebread began sinking in the corn. He was sucked under in minutes and disappeared. Pacas and Piper also began to sink and desperately struggled to stay on the surface.

Six horrific hours later, only Piper was carried out alive.

The story details how simple safety precautions, which are required by current law, can prevent such tragedies. It also documents how ineffective the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been at tackling this ongoing problem. As the report describes,

“At some point we’re going to have to decide whether these incidents are just accidental … [or] somebody’s really making horrendous decisions that approach a criminal level,” says [Bill] Field [a professor of agricultural and biological engineering] at Purdue, who is often enlisted as an expert witness in grain death lawsuits and as a safety consultant for the grain industry and OSHA.

“It’s intentional risk-taking on the part of the managers or someone in a supervisory capacity that ends up in some horrific incidents,” Field adds. “The bottom line is if you ask them why they did it, it was because it was more profitable to do it that way.”

Field counts more than 660 farmers and workers who suffocated in nearly 1,000 grain entrapments since 1964 at both commercial facilities and on farms. Nearly 500 died in grain bins. One in four victims was younger than 18.

Head to the home page of the series here , where you’ll find links to NPR’s four stories, photos, documents obtained in the investigation, and links to related reports from the Center for Public Integrity, the Kansas City Star, and Harvest Public Media.

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