August 4, 2010 Liz Borkowski, MPH 21Comment

Last week, two workers were killed in an Illinois grain elevator. Alejandro Pacas, 19, and Wyatt Whitebread, 14, were engulfed by shelled corn in the Mount Carroll grain facility, which is owned by Haasbach, LLC. A third victim, Will Piper, 20, was trapped for approximately six hours before responders were able to remove him from the grain bin and transport him by helicopter to a hospital. According to one report, the tragedy occurred when one worker fell into the bin and four others went in to try and help. Two of those workers were able to escape, but the others were not. Far too often, this is how workers die: by trying to save a co-worker.

Suffocation inside grain storage bins is an alarmingly common way for workers to die. “Standing on moving grain is deadly; the grain acts like ‘quicksand’ and can bury a worker in seconds,” OSHA explains. The agency has a grain handling standard (29 CFR 1910.272), but recent events show that not all employers are following it.

OSHA has just announced that it has proposed fines totaling $721,000 against Cooperative Plus Inc. in Burlington, where in February a worker was trapped in soybeans up to his chest for four hours. The agency also issued a fine of more than $1.6 million – for 23 alleged willful violations – against the South Dakota Wheat Growers Association, after a worker suffocated in a bin and five additional workers were sent into the bin after him, which also endangered their lives.

I’m glad to see that in addition to issuing such fines, OSHA is also using the spate of tragedies to alert grain facilities to safety problems and let them know OSHA’s paying attention. Earlier today, OSHA announced that it’s sending a strongly worded letter to all grain elevator operators warning them not to allow workers to enter grain storage facilities without proper equipment, precautions, and training. Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA Dr. David Michaels explains that these employers should consider themselves to be on notice, because “OSHA will use the full extent of the law to ensure that any employer who violates these standards is held accountable for its lack of concern for worker safety.” Here’s what the letter says:

Dear Grain Storage Facility Operator:

Last week, two teenagers (ages 14 and 19) were killed in a tragic incident involving a grain elevator in Illinois. Both young workers suffocated after being engulfed in a grain bin they had entered to help clear. A third young worker was pulled out of the storage bin alive, and was hospitalized after being trapped for 12 hours.

Unfortunately, this was not a rare occurrence. Researchers at Purdue University documented 38 grain entrapments in 2009 alone. OSHA has found that grain entrapments generally occur because of employer negligence, non-compliance with OSHA standards, and/or poor safety and health practices.

I am writing to you today because it is your responsibility to prevent your workers from dying in grain storage facilities. All employers, and especially those in high hazard industries such as the grain industry, must recognize as well as prevent workplace hazards. As an employer, you must be vigilant and always follow the long established, common sense safety practices that will prevent these tragedies. A copy of OSHA’s Grain Handling Facilities standard, 29 CFR 1910.272, is enclosed for your reference. This standard contains the rules that must be followed. States that operate their own occupational safety and health programs under plans approved by Federal OSHA enforce comparable standards but may have different or additional requirements. A list of State plans is available at

When workers enter storage bins, employers must (among other things):
1. Turn off and lock out all powered equipment associated with the bin, including augers used to help move the grain, so that the grain is not being emptied or moving out or into the bin. Standing on moving grain is deadly; the grain acts like ‘quicksand’ and can bury a worker in seconds. Moving grain out of a bin while a worker is in the bin creates a suction that can pull the workers into the grain in seconds.
2. Prohibit walking down grain and similar practices where an employee walks on grain to make it flow.
3. Provide all employees a body harness with a lifeline, or a boatswains chair, and ensure that it is secured prior to the employee entering the bin.
4. Provide an observer stationed outside the bin or silo being entered by an employee. Ensure the observer is equipped to provide assistance and that their only task is to continuously track the employee in the bin
5. Prohibit workers from entry into bins or silos underneath a bridging condition, or where a build-up of grain products on the sides could fall and bury them.
6. Test the air within a bin or silo prior to entry for the presence of combustible and toxic gases, and to determine if there is sufficient oxygen.
7. Ensure a permit is issued for each instance a worker enters a bin or silo, certifying that the precautions listed above have been implemented.

As an employer of workers facing these hazards, you have the legal obligation to protect and train your workers. OSHA will not tolerate non-compliance with the Grain Handling Facilities standard. OSHA has investigated several cases involving worker entry into grain storage bins where we have found that the employer was aware of the hazards and of OSHA’s standards, but failed to train or protect the workers entering the bin. OSHA has aggressively pursued these cases and we will continue to use our enforcement authority to the fullest extent possible. Just in the last 10 months, OSHA has issued three large penalty citations to grain elevator operators for these very hazards.

On November 23, 2009, OSHA fined Tempel Grain Elevators LLP more than $1.5 million following the May 29, 2009 death of a teenage worker at the company’s Haswell, Colorado grain storage operation. The youth suffocated after being engulfed by grain in one of the facility’s bins. The company also exposed three other teenage workers to the cited hazards.
On May 27, 2010, OSHA fined the South Dakota Wheat Growers Association of Aberdeen, South Dakota more than $1.6 million following the death of a worker who had suffocated after being engulfed by grain. OSHA’s investigation found that five additional workers were also at risk of being engulfed when they were sent into the bin to dig the victim out.
On August 4, 2010, OSHA fined Cooperative Plus, Inc. in Burlington, Wisconsin $721,000 after a worker was buried up to his chest and trapped in frozen soybeans. The worker was ultimately rescued after a four hour ordeal.

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 pursuant to the criminal provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.

I am calling on you today to prevent these needless deaths. OSHA State Consultation Programs are available to assist you in complying with OSHA standards. If you have further questions, please contact your local OSHA Area or State Plan Office or your State Consultation Program. More information is available at


David Michaels, PhD, MPH

I don’t know why grain elevator operators have continued to put employees’ lives at risk. Are they not aware of the dangers? Do they not know what the rules require? Or do they figure they’re unlikely to get caught even if they do cut a few corners? Whatever the reason, I hope this letter convinces them to start following the rules to keep workers safe.

21 thoughts on “OSHA Responds to Grain Bin Tragedies

  1. What the f***ing h*** was a child of fourteen doing in a dangerous work environment like a silo anyway? Any positive changes are good, but a workplace culture where children are assumed competent to work in dangerous situations is slogging up a very steep slope.

  2. I live in Iowa and around farming. Everyone knows it’s still in the culture to let young teens (legal for 14yos to work and the bin sites aren’t obviously classified like a meat slicer) work around equipment and even drive huge tractors and operate hazardous machinery. The fact this kid ended up as a worker inside a bin was considered a non-issue. ANY LOSS of life, bad non-followed rules/protocols and danger in a work site is the issue.

  3. All it takes to fix this is holding the employers criminally responsible. Put the bosses in prison for their crimes and these tragedies will stop.

  4. One of my classmates at 14 rolled her father’s tractor. (Luckily, she was thrown clear onto soft plough and survived without injury.) She was still three full years and a driving test off being allowed to take a car to the shops. Just because kids are allowed to do that sort of thing by custom, doesn’t mean they should be permitted in law.

  5. I guess you didn’t get the memo describing how we are moving toward a perfect capitalist/plutocratic paradise where workers have no right to any protection. A libertarian dream where individual workers must negotiate their own terms for job safety in a labor environment where 10% official unemployment, closer to 15% actual, and widespread hiring of illegal aliens keep wages and labor negotiating power low. In effect labor is expendable because safety interferes with profits.

    It also has to be recognized that those fines look impressive but we are talking about major companies where a million dollars is small potatoes. It also has to be noted that all of those fines will be appealed and odds are they will be reduced.

    I’m impressed by the effort. But long history has shown that many people think worker protection is unwarranted interference in the rights and freedoms of workers to seek out jobs where they are abused and expendable. That the coddling of workers with safety regulations inhibits the gripping fear of death that might motivate otherwise lazy workers to become a CEO, investment banker, or other productive member of society instead of being a parasite that feeds off the creative output of their intellectual superiors.

  6. It’s as much the workers as the operators. I used to work with grain elevator owners and operators and one of the gripes was that workers would fail to follow “lock out/tag out” procedures, ignore the safety equipment, disable safety interlocks, and do stupid stuff.

    It’s the “it can’t happen to me” along with the “everybody does it” mentality.

  7. Where I come from (Alberta, Canada), farm workers are basically exempt from occupational health and safety legislation, and under pressure from farm owners the government continues to refuse to change this. The whole mentality of the farm industry with respect to worker safety is badly outdated for the most part.

  8. Allowing a 14-year old to work on grain is criminal negligence pure and simple.

    @Tsu Dho Nimh

    Then it becomes the responsibility of the management to discipline, even fire, workers that fail to adhere to safety regulations. Yes that means monitoring them.

  9. Thanks to all of you for your comments and warranted outrage. The 19 yr old who died in Mt. Carroll was my nephew, Alex. It was an unconscionable act of neglect which resulted in his death and the death of Wyatt. These acts are all ultimately motivated by greed – the desire to have the best profit margin. Safety training, safety equipment, proper supervision, etc all require an expenditure of capital – which all companies are reluctant to do. Combined with the ability to hire young workers at low rates, it is a mecca for increasing profit.

    Art’s comments, are thus, sadly, right on the mark. By the time the fines are negotiated down and appealed it is most likely more “cost efficient” for them to pay the fine than provide for the safety of workers. A VERY SAD AND SICK REALITY. While overall workplace conditions are safer than they were hundreds of years ago, the fact remains until we can erradicate the vice grip of greed, workers will remain expendable. (And while I understand and can agree with the jist of Tsu’s comments, it IS the responsibility of the “management” to negate that mentality and enforce all safety precautions. The employer sets the standard – if safety is the priority either the employee follows it or they aren’t employed. If the employer is lax in their enforcement of safety then the employee will be. You can’t prevent someone from being “stupid”, but you can enforce a culture of “zero tolerance”).

    The only way to control this is to demand greater accountability and penalties to all companies. Unfortunately, accountability and penalties are REACTIVE rather than proactive. We have two courses of action – insist the penalties are so high that it makes the risk not worth taking by other companies AND insist compliance and accountability are determined BEFORE not after.

    These deaths CAN AND SHOULD be avenged by the insistence of the American populace to strip corporations of their power to continually exploit the “workers” in order to gain a few more dollars of profit. Because while they sit there year after year counting their dollars these families and community will spend the rest of their lives without their sons, brothers, nephews, friends. No amount of money in the world makes up for that!

    By the way – What happened to SHAME? At the VERY LEAST, this company should be ASHAMED of their actions and letting that be seen – but they are busy protecting themselves with their legal teams. At the minimum it could have freely offered to cover the funeral expenses – but last I heard that hadn’t occurred.

    No, it was the love, generosity and support of the community which is embracing the families. It was an INCREDIBLE site to behold. I am not talking only of monetary help – but the whole spectrum of human kindness and decency – SO MANY ACTS OF UNSELFISHNESS. So many of the people themselves have limited resources but you would have thought every person in that community was a billionaire playboy with no other worries or responsibilities. They were there in droves – helping with whatever needed to be done, in whatever way they could. From the teenagers who played with, watched and comforted the little children to the adults who did anything from laundry to errands to meals, etc. What an amazing display of pure goodness! Even the hotel staff where I was staying in Stockton, IL went so far above and beyond! (One night they took one look at me and brought me Tylenol). Our family cannot thank these people enough! I pray that God blesses each and everyone of them a thousand fold.

    Yet, the ones responsible, the ones with the most, have been conspicuously absent. What does that say?!!!! My goal is to use everything in my power to force OSHA to force this company and others to be accountable and make sure THIS NEVER HAPPENS TO ANOTHER FAMILY! There is NO EXCUSE for them and we should NOT allow them ANY in the future. We are supposed to be a civilized society. It is time we DEMAND the life of anyone is worth far more than a company’s profit.

    Thank you for letting me have a place to air and a place to heal.

  10. Cat, thank you so much for coming and commenting. My heart goes out to you and your family. I know that family members whose loved ones have been killed on the job can be the most powerful advocates for safe workplaces – and for strong, meaningful enforcement.

    It sounds like your families have a wonderful, supportive community. You might also want to know of a national community called United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities – its members have all lost loved ones to workplace disasters, and many of them have also become advocates for safe workplaces in their states and at the national level. They’re a wonderful resource for information on things like what to expect (and demand) from OSHA as well as a source of emotional support for one another.


  11. THANK YOU LIZ! I will contact them. My husband who works with OSHA in the manufacturing environment suggested last night I start some type of group to facilitate education and awareness. I took it to heart and started making phone calls today – this info you posted is GREAT. I live in Texas and got back last night, but feel I must not let this issue be relegated to the back burner. Any other suggestions from anyone would be greatly appreciated!!!

  12. OSHA is/has been a partner is allowing this to exist & continue. They have failed to enforce safety rules over the years OSHA and the company bosses are a part of the ‘good ole boy’ network in America’s Ag business.

    I’d plan to go to even more funerals.

  13. My sympathies for your loss, cat.

    I live in the grain belt of the country; it seems somebody gets trapped or killed in a bin several times a year. A 64-year-old man in western Minnesota was killed that way just a few days ago. It was his own bin; perhaps the biggest danger is not at large commercial operations, where OSHA has jurisdiction, but on family farms, where it’s an “anything goes” mentality. Farm accidents can be quite horrific. (If you hear a paramedic mention the word “combine harvester”, it’s probably best not to listen to the rest of the story unless you have a strong stomach.)

    This happens way, way too often. I don’t think the family farm can be made safer with respect to grain bins; there just isn’t an appropriate regulatory framework for that. But commercial grain elevators and feedlots and such most certainly can take better precautions, and really should. There is simply no excuse.

  14. Not knowing that much of the culture within that particular workforce, but knowing about physical jobs…

    Is there some sort of machismo involved here as well, that may need a campaign aimed at the workers? “Only wusses need a safety harness”, “When I first started we blah, blah,” “This is just a hazing, all the newbies get it”?

  15. NoAstronomer –

    It is rather easier to suggest that workers who scoff at safety be fired and just be sure to watch them, than it is to make it work.

    I spent several years working construction and sometimes worked around rather hardcore cowboy types. Most of them worked for employers who were genuinely concerned about safety (often for insurance reasons) and did what they could to get guys to comply – but there is only so much you can do. You simply can’t stand there watching every single worker, all the time. Sure, when you catch them you can send them home for the day or even fire them. But you can’t catch them all the time.

    Workers do this sort of crap all the time. Even when they’re getting paid by the hour and know they’ll get fired if they get caught. My dad, a construction safety professional (retired from MI-OSHA), often works as a site safety man – usually in plant shut downs. His job is to wander around and make sure that workers are complying with safety regulations. Morons still try to pull crap.

    That said, there are way too many employers out there who like to play the margins. While worker compliance is a major problem with no easy solutions, the biggest contributor to workplace safety problems are by far the employers.

    cat – (no links, because they get caught up in spam filters – just google the orgs, they’re easy to find)

    I think your husband’s idea is a great one. I would also suggest checking out the National Young Worker Safety Resource Center. I would recommend you check out their site and even contact them, as they can explain some of the ins and outs of promoting young worker safety in your state. Another organization that I am fond of, is the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. They tend to focus their efforts on “transient” work situations – such as agriculture and construction, where worker safety is often the worst off. They also focus information resources on immigrant labor and young workers.

    The CDC and specifically NIOSH are also good resources for educational materials. For that matter, OSHA also has some educational resources available, IIRC. And while their organizational response may be rather more limited than I would like, there are a lot of dedicated people working within OSHA – doing what they can with all too limited resources and regulatory tools.

    This sort of tragedy is inexcusable and all too common, especially with young workers. Even with a construction safety expert for a father, I wound up working in occasional unsafe conditions. Kids are naturally prone to risk taking, especially young men. When you add to that a lack of job specific safety training and employers who just don’t care, you end up with a sometimes deadly combination. Or you end up with kids who cause long term damage to their bodies, because of how they position themselves or lift heavy objects (at 34 my knees and back have pain comparable to those of men more than twice my age).

    I hope that you do decide to start a group. There are resources out there and if you have the time and energy, you can channel that anger and pain into change. Whatever scale you manage to develop and foster education and awareness, it is entirely worth it. I am truly sorry for your loss. It is sad when men and women die that young, it is inexcusable and enraging when it happens on the job.

  16. Thanks for all the continuing condolences,comments, support, and resources. I have been emailing and calling many organizations and people. Interestingly, I have had responses from NIOSH,and, of course,Celeste and USMWF. However, in writing to those who would be considered agricultural partners, I have had little response and the one who has responded didn’t show much interest in the idea of everyone partnering to promote education, training, and enforcement. I have decided to give them a little more time and if I don’t start getting some responses, I will start naming them. If the stakeholders in the business aren’t interested in bonding together to prevent further tragedy, then it presents a picture of implicit cooperation with those corporations who want to continue unsafe work practices. Perhaps public shame is the way to motivate them.

    I am finding the resources are out there and available, therefore there just doesn’t seem to be an excuse for these ongoing situations. Yet, already I am hearing excuses. Very frustrating.

    DuWayne and others – it is hard to motivate individuals to be safe – My husband also faces it every day. Sometimes you want to just slap them upside the head. It is a brutal combination of worker noncompliance and management’s attitude toward enforcing safety. Truly the only way to “FIX” it per se, is to make it hurt at the corporate level – ie through very stiff money/criminal penalties. If it hurts them they will make sure management complies and it will trickle down to employees. The old philosophy “**** rolls downhill.” My husband keeps preaching – you have to have both an unsafe act and an unsafe condition for an accident to occur. Can’t always prevent the act – but the company CAN and SHOULD be responsible for the condition.

    OSHA is between a rock and hard spot. They don’t have the funds or manpower or even the ability to do too much. Big Business has made it so they are self policing in terms of their regulatory compliance. Problem is they aren’t doing a very good job of policing themselves. Personally, I think not only should they have fines, but if OSHA does get involved, I believe they should have to pay for it – like they might for a consultant. They might start doing a better job of policing themselves.

  17. Believe me, I am all too aware of OSHA’s manpower issues. At one point, the state of MI had as many inspectors as there were covering the rest of the Midwest. But for all it’s shortcomings, OSHA has made huge changes in the landscape.

    If you decide to name names, please let me know. While naming companies directly isn’t all that useful, talking to and if that fails, about the companies they supply can be very useful indeed. When you can start to name names that people see on the shelf in the grocery store it starts to become more problematic.

  18. Cat,
    I really empathise with you, your family, and friends. Two more young men suffocating in grain is unacceptable. I also understand your desire to make some changes. I founded Farm Safety 4 Just Kids in 1987, one year after my son Keith suffocated in a gravity flow wagon load of corn on our Iowa farm. Please take a look at our website Maybe we can help in some way. Keep the faith.

  19. I find it rather depressing that everyone seems to be calling for more regulation, more OSHA, more government when almost no one seems to be calling for personal responsibility. Accidents happen, its true and it is sad, but many times such accidents are not the fault of management, but of the individual worker or workers who act counter to training and common sense.
    Agriculture is dangerous, I know because I worked on a farm between the ages of 12 to 17. But is having an inspector at every corner going to help? Is such a thing even practical?

    Greed is often blamed and increased profits are the bad guy. I’d like to ask anyone who blames greed whether or not they turned down any pay raises themselves. If they are reading this, they have purchased or at least used a computer that uses small amounts of gold among many other resources. Does anyone know how difficult and dangerous gold mining is? Yet someone was able to do it efficiently enough to provide the gold that makes computers possible at a reasonable price. And of course if there wasn’t a profit motive, there would be nothing but subsistence farms.

    Sure, we could have a government inspector watching over every dangerous job in America and accidents would likely decline, but at what cost? Such an expense would not only cripple the economy, but force so many people into poverty and as we know poverty more than almost anything else, shortens life spans. Richer nations are safer, plain and simple.

    We read “Researchers at Purdue University documented 38 grain entrapments in 2009 alone.” I don’t know if all of those entrapments were fatal, but let us assume that they were. Lets compare; The number of highway deaths for 2009 were 33,963 vs 38. 2009, it should be noted, was a record LOW for highway deaths. I’ll wager that pretty much all of those deaths were preventable, I’ll even bet that many of those deaths were people driving to or from work or even driving as part of their work. Yet do we call on businesses to require inspections and all the rest for drivers? No, because we assume a level of personal responsibility.

    So, clearly, if this be a scientifically minded group (and it probably is) one should know to look at the greater trend and not the anomaly. Or to put it into medical terms of Triage, the most urgent problem gets the most attention. In pure numbers, car accidents are some 875 times more deadly, yes a higher percentage of people drive than farm (thank you to industrialization) but deaths are deaths and in these cases virtually all are preventable. Moreover, car accidents often affect non-drivers whereas agriculture accidents, for the most part, happen only to the workers themselves. As a matter of public health, agriculture is a statistical blip.

    The key is, of course, is to have a greater culture of personal responsibility. Perhaps these two teens acted according to the company training, perhaps not but knowing what happened is critical in knowing who to blame and who to sue. I highly doubt any fine by OSHA will go to the families of the dead, and even if it did, it would not be before OSHA absorbed a huge chunk of it (or tax money) to process the whole thing.

    We don’t see massive numbers of people dying from accidents in non-OSHA states, and we still have accidents in OSHA states. Given this, it is clear that OSHA really has done very little good at relatively high expense.

    High personal liability, on the other hand, either from the owner or the worker (whomever was at fault) ensures that the right people are punished (if any at all, sometimes accidents happen) and it creates an incentive for safe work practices and the honoring of contracts made between employer and employee. All to often it is government regulation that shields the truly guilty party while imposing costs on all of us.

    It is unfortunate that many scientists look to government to rescue people from themselves when they ought to be looking at things scientifically; Technology and Engineering makes life easier and safer and Commerce makes it cheap for businesses and individuals to afford. This, in combination with personal responsibility make a better society, not big brother overlooking everyone’s shoulders.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.