November 1, 2012 Liz Borkowski, MPH 5Comment

It was easy to miss with all of the Sandy coverage, but an article by John M. Broder in Sunday’s New York Times gives some of the wrenching details about teenage boys dying in grain bins. Broder begins with the story of Tommy Osier:

STERLING, Mich. — Tommy Osier, 18, a popular but indifferent student, was still a year from graduating from high school, and that was no sure thing. Farm work paid him $7.40 an hour, taught him discipline and gave him new skills. He had begun talking about making a life in farming.

But he hated the chore he drew on Memorial Day of last year, working inside the silo at Pine Grove Farm. The corn was damp and crusted. It tended to hang up on the sides of the old six-story cement bin and had to be busted up with a steel rod before it would cascade to the bottom to be shoveled out.

That morning, just after 9, the phone rang in the Osier home. “Tommy’s in the silo,” his sister relayed to their mother, Linda, unsure of what it meant.

Ms. Osier grew up on a hog farm and knew right away. “He’s dead,” she said, slumping to the floor. “Tommy’s dead.”

When engulfed in grain, which can behave like quicksand, workers can suffocate quickly. Since 2007, 80 workers have been killed in grain bins and silos; 26 of them died in 2010 alone. Broder also describes the deaths of Wyatt Whitebread, age 14, and Alejandro Pacas, 19, who were killed in an Illinois grain elevator in 2010. Will Piper, who tried to save Pacas, was “pinned against Mr. Pacas’s lifeless body for nearly 12 hours as 300 rescuers worked to drain the bin and free him.”

Celeste and I have written about grain bin deaths and injuries repeatedly — e.g., here, here, here, and here. It’s horrible to see these tragedies occurring over and over again even though they’re preventable. OSHA has worked to disseminate clear steps for employers to follow to prevent grain bin injuries, including:

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 can act like “quicksand” and 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. 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.

5. Train all workers for the specific hazardous work operations they are to perform when entering and working inside of grain bins.

In 2010, just weeks after Whitebread and Pacas were killed, OSHA wrote to all grain elevator operators warning them not to allow workers to enter grain storage facilities without proper equipment, precautions, and training — and stating, “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.” In 2011, the agency issued more than twice as many citations for grain handling violations than it did in 2008 (1,532, up from 663, Broder reports).

Broder also reports on the Department of Labor’s proposed revisions to rules for children working on farms, which would, among other changes, have prohibited employees under 16 from working in grain bins (as in the past, the rule would not have applied to children working on farms owned or operated by their parents). The Department of Labor abruptly withdrew the entire proposal in April.

At the end of the article, Broder returns to the story of Tommy Osier:

Tommy suffocated in minutes but it took 35 men more than four hours to free his bruised body from the bin. The coroner found kernels embedded in his lungs.

Rescue workers laid him on the back of a pickup truck in the calf barn and formed a screen to block the local television cameras. His mother was waiting there for him.

Ms. Osier said she was not surprised by the extent of his injuries, but was shocked that the impact had dislocated his jaw.

“You know, it’s morbid, but I wish I had photos of that so I could use it for rescuers because it devastated so many of the first responders,” she said.

What most confounds safety experts and advocates is how simple and inexpensive it is to avoid such tragedies. A pulley system, a safety harness and a set of boards to fence off a trapped worker cost less than $1,000 per elevator, said Mr. Bauer, the safety director at the Michigan grain company, and following federal requirements, like having a spotter and shutting off any mechanical equipment, costs nothing.

I like to think that if employers knew how simple these incidents are to prevent and how devastating they are when they happen, they’d take these free steps and make the inexpensive investments. Every major news story that tells the sad stories and explains prevention has the potential to convince grain bin operators to take these life-saving steps.  Read Broder’s whole article here.

5 thoughts on “Grain bin deaths are preventable but keep happening

  1. One question: does the 4h teach the safety rules as well as the FFA, these are the organizations that rural children tend to attend. It appears from looking at the 4h web site that they do not. 4h catches younger kids than FFA (future farmers of america), and I did not see a farm safety unit on their web site (4h). Since the coop extension service is a sponsor it would seem that a sequence on safe farming techniques could well be provided.
    However I suspect there would be the same issue as the issue that confronted the BNSF when they forbade (as a fireable offense) jumping on or off a moving train. It was macho to do so. Farming likely has more traditions than the railroads which were at least the most hidebound of US industries. The FFA does have safety programs here is a link to a program in Il. so programs do exist to teach teenagers safety, but then the question is do the teen agers ignore in the interest of being macho like a lot of auto accidents are caused.

  2. Just because the FFA and FH say they have safety training and have safety information on their website, doesn’t mean their young members actually receive comprehensive safety training.

    A few months back, I was visiting Wash DC and a few dozen FFA kids boarded the subway train. They had fabulous embroidered jackets with the States where they live prominently displayed. I used it as an opportunity to ask them about the FFA activities. They were happy to talk. But when I asked “how much do you learn about hazards on farms, such as in grain elevators or manure pits,” they looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language. One teen looked around to her fellow FFA’rs and then said to me, “we don’t really work on safety stuff, but we’re always told to be careful.”

    As the worker fatality and injury data in U.S. agriculture shows us, telling workers (especially young workers) to just “be careful” is no way to prevent injuries and deaths.

  3. You will note that the ariticle I posted came from a local newspaper. Now it may be that some FFA Branches do safety and some not, but there were other newspapers that reported the same thing. Also it may be that as teenaged boys they feel that safety is unimportant for them as an unmacho thing to talk about. No one makes folks attend the events, so its both a question of why they don’t and how to encourage attendance.

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