September 14, 2010 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 2Comment

Following the suffocation death of Wyatt Whitebread, 14 and Alex Pacas, 19, in Haasbach, Inc.’s grain elevator in Mount Carroll, Illinois, OSHA asst. secretary David Michaels sent a personal letter to more than 3,300 grain storage operators. He sternly reminded them of their legal duty under OSHA’s safety standards related to grain handling, including prohibitions against “walking down grain” in the silo to make it flow, and requirements to provide a body harness for workers entering the bin. The asst. secretary warned:

“OSHA will not tolerate non-compliance,” and “if any employee dies in a grain storage facility, in addition to any civil penalties proposed, OSHA will consider referring the incident to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution.”

OSHA sent the letter to operations owned by large corporations, such as Cargil, ConAgra, Nestle, and Archer Daniels Midland, and small businesses like Yazoo Brewing in Nashville and Eagle Seed in Weiner, Arkansas.

I noticed today while reading The Weekly Toll— the collection of work-related deaths assembled by USMWF’s Deb Fergen and Tammy Miser— that workers continue to die in grain storage facilities. On Aug 27 in Geneseo Illinois, Mr. Raymond Nowland, 49 died in an elevator holding corn. On August 31, Monique Harper, 41 died at a rice storage facility in Stuttgart, Arkansas.

Using the list posted on OSHA’s website, it appears that Producers Rice Mill Inc., the facility where Ms. Harper died, was sent the OSHA letter. It’s a different matter altogether whether the responsible individuals at the facility received and read it. I suspect that will be a question asked by OSHA during its investigation. The agency has as much as six months (the statutory limit) to complete its investigation. That’s when we’ll learn whether grain handling safety standards were violated and if such violations contributed to Ms. Harper’s death.

I found no entry on the OSHA list matching the site in Illinois were Mr. Raymond Nowland was killed on August 27. Whether or not the facility received the asst. secretary’s letter, the employer still had the duty to follow the applicable workplace safety standards. [Despite what some might think, OSHA does not have a master list of every workplace in the country.] The local sheriff, Gilbert Cady, said

“Unfortunately this happens every once in a while. It’s an unfortunate thing with grain bins.”

Unfortunate indeed because investigations of grain elevator fatalities typically find that had simple safety procedures been followed, the worker’s death could have been prevented.

I’ll wait for OSHA’s investigation to determine whether that was the case in these two most recent incidents.

2 thoughts on “OSHA chief puts grain operators on notice, but worker deaths in grain continue

  1. This article presents a very sad list. But it may be wrong to see these deaths as workplace accidents. Many seem due to gross negligence or recklessness on the part of the employers. If so, they should be treated as cases of negligent homicide, which is a statutory crime in most states. These are OSHA matters, but they are also matters for the States Attorneys and grand juries.

  2. I am surprised that the industry does not stage rallies about how the Obama administration is trying to put farmers out of work. The industry is hoping for another Republican administration so that OSHA can be tamed again, as it was under Bush.

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