@ Nebraska Republicans who Rant & Rail against Regulations: Examine this “Farm Silo Death Trap” Story & Realize there’s a Real Reason for Regs; Read it & Weep, my Friends that ALL these Deaths Could be Prevented Were it not for Big Ag.

October 30, 2012


>Silos Loom as Death Traps on American Farms
Stephen McGee

Death in the Silo: The United States is producing more grain than ever, for food, feed, and commercial applications like ethanol. But as other farm work has gotten safer, gruesome grain bin accidents persist.


Published: October 28, 2012 61 Comments

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.

Bob Watson/Carroll County (IL) Mirror-Democrat

Rescuers at a deadly grain silo accident in Illinois in 2010.

From top, Tommy Osier, 18, of Michigan; and Wyatt Whitebread,14, and Alejandro Pacas, 19, of Illinois. All died in entrapments.

MiOSHA (Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration)

Tommy Osier died in minutes, but it took 35 men more than four hours to free his body from a silo last year.

Stephen McGee for The New York Times

Linda Osier at her home in Standish, Mich., where signs memorialize her son, who was in high school.

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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.”

Even as the rate of serious injury and fatalities on American farms has fallen, the number of workers dying by entrapment in grain bins and silos has remained stubbornly steady. The annual number of such accidents rose throughout the past decade, reaching a peak of at least 26 deaths in 2010, before dropping somewhat since.

Silos teeming with corn, wheat or soybeans become death traps when grain cascades out of control, asphyxiating or crushing their victims. Since 2007, 80 farmworkers have died in silo accidents; 14 of them were teenage boys.

The deaths are horrific and virtually all preventable.

Experts say the continuing rate of silo deaths is due in part to the huge amount of corn being produced and stored in the United States to meet the global demand for food, feed and, increasingly, ethanol-based fuel.

That the deaths persist reveals continuing flaws in the enforcement of worker safety laws and weaknesses in rules meant to protect the youngest farmworkers. Nearly 20 percent of all serious grain bin accidents involve workers under the age of 20.

Last year, the Labor Department proposed new regulations aimed at tightening protections for children doing farm work.

The proposed federal regulations would have prohibited children under 18 from working in large commercial grain bins, silos or other enclosed spaces. But the Obama administration, sensitive to Republican charges that it was choking the economy with expensive regulations, pulled back the proposed rules this year in the face of furious farm-state objections.

Even those rules would not have covered working conditions on family farms and small operations like the one where Tommy Osier died and which account for 70 percent of grain entrapment accidents. Experts on farm safety say that most farmers are aware of the hazards of sending someone into a bin full of unstable grain, but often lack the equipment or training to protect their workers against an avalanche.

“The concept of walking down the grain should be avoided at all costs,” said Wayne Bauer, the safety director at the Star of the West Milling Company in Frankenmuth, Mich., which operates grain elevators in five states. “And people sending kids into spaces where they have no business being deserve to be fined.”

Dave Schwab, who operated the farm where Tommy Osier died, told investigators that he knew the air inside silos could be toxic and combustible, but that he was unaware of the dangers of entrapment in cascading corn. He did not have air-monitoring or rescue equipment at the farm, but investigators found no evidence that he willfully flouted state rules for sending workers into confined spaces.

‘They Didn’t Have a Clue’

Wyatt Whitebread, 14, had been on the job for just two weeks at a commercial grain-elevator complex in Mount Carroll, Ill., when he was sent into a 500,000-bushel storage tower to loosen corn kernels that were sticking to the side. Bin No. 9 was one of more than a dozen buildings on the property owned and operated by Haasbach L.L.C.

Shortly after he and other teenage workers entered the bin on July 10, 2010, a manager at the base opened two floor holes to speed the flow of the grain. The sudden action dragged Wyatt, who was walking atop the corn to help it flow, toward the floor of the bin, engulfing him under the corn as he screamed for help. Alejandro Pacas, 19, who had joined the work crew the day before, rushed over to aid him and was quickly entrapped himself. Both teenagers died in seconds.

A third young worker, Will Piper, 20, was injured when he became trapped trying to save Mr. Pacas, his best friend. Pinned against Mr. Pacas’s lifeless body for nearly 12 hours as 300 rescuers worked to drain the bin and free him, he managed to keep his head above the corn and survived.

“They sent those boys in there ill-equipped to do a job that even adults should not do,” said Carla Whitebread, Wyatt’s mother. “They sacrificed our boys to save a buck and get more corn out.”

William E. Field, a professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Purdue University and the country’s foremost expert on grain storage accidents, has documented more than 800 serious entrapment cases since 1970, a count likely shy by hundreds, he said, because many go unreported.

Virtually every entrapment is preventable, Dr. Field said, by following simple guidelinesestablished by the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Before any worker enters a grain silo, employers must turn off all power equipment, particularly loaders and augers. Any worker entering a bin must be provided a safety harness or a supporting chair. There must be an observer monitoring the bin worker at all times. No one should enter a bin when grain is bridged overhead or built up on the sides. Air must be tested for the presence of combustible or toxic gases.

Almost none of these precautions were followed the day the teenagers died at the Illinois elevator or at the farm where Tommy Osier died.

The Labor Department identified two dozen violations of required safety practices and child labor laws that contributed to the deaths of Alejandro Pacas and Wyatt Whitebread.

“Grain entrapments kill workers,” David Michaels, the OSHA director, said in announcing $618,000 in fines and penalties, later negotiated down to $268,000. “There is absolutely no excuse for any worker to be killed in this type of incident.”

Catherine Rylatt, Mr. Pacas’s aunt, who has established a group to promote safety in grain handling and to raise awareness, said that the fines were too low to deter operators from cutting corners and that the government needed to do more.

“He was never supposed to be in that grain bin, and he didn’t receive proper training,” she said. “I know my nephew had some awareness of the scientific properties, the weight of the corn if you did get trapped, it would take this much force to pull someone out. But any sense of real danger, how to prevent that danger — they didn’t have a clue.”

Exemptions and Proposals

Hundreds of thousands of silos sit on small and medium-size farms and at local grain terminals, and because these operations employ fewer than 10 workers, they are exempt from most federal health and safety rules.

Children working for their parents or close relatives are exempt from all labor regulations, a feature of federal law since 1938 that is based on the theory that parents will take extra care of their own children.

Federal labor standards apply to only the 13,000 largest grain handling facilities, operations like the Mount Carroll grain terminal, even though historically a majority of reported grain entrapments occur on family farms and at small grain elevators.

A week after the deaths in Mount Carroll, the Labor Department sent a sharply wordedletter to all commercial grain handling facilities.

“As an employer of workers facing these hazards, you have the legal obligation to protect and train your workers,” Mr. Michaels wrote. “I am calling on you to prevent these needless deaths.” Criminal prosecution would be recommended in future egregious cases, he added.

But the silo deaths and injuries continued. On Aug. 4 last year, Bryce Gannon and Tyler Zander, 17-year-old high school seniors, were inside a commercial grain bin in Kremlin, Okla., operating a 10-inch sweep auger on the floor. Mr. Gannon’s leg got caught in the auger, and when Mr. Zander tried to help him, he also became ensnared in the machinery. Each teenager lost a leg.

Three weeks later, the federal government proposed new child labor rules for agriculture, the first major revision in nearly half a century.

“Children employed in agriculture are some of the most vulnerable workers in America,” Secretary of LaborHilda L. Solissaid in announcing the proposed rules.

The proposal, covering 49 pages in the Federal Register, noted that the hazards of farm work had changed drastically and that while teenage farmworkers accounted for only 4 percent of the country’s working youths, they suffered more than 40 percent of overall workplace deaths.

The proposed regulations would have barred young workers from entering silos and other enclosed spaces. But they went much further in other areas, prohibiting teenagers from doing a broad array of farm tasks, including herding livestock and driving large farm vehicles. They also would have set new limits on the height of ladders that they could climb and the size of trees that they could cut.

Dr. Field of Purdue University said the administration squandered an opportunity by drawing the rules too broadly.

“They needed to address new technology and new equipment,” he said. “But in my mind, the Department of Labor, or whoever was pushing it, took it as an opportunity to throw everything, including the kitchen sink, at this thing.”

Though the regulations enshrined the longstanding exemption for children working on small family farms, the reaction was intense. Thousands of farmers wrote in protest. Even the parents of children killed in farm accidents — including Ms. Osier and Mrs. Whitebread — opposed the measures.

“I was very against it and was disappointed that they were using Wyatt as a reason for pursuing it,” Mrs. Whitebread said in an e-mail message. “Preventing kids from working on farms and around livestock is not the answer.”

Members of Congress from both parties demanded that the rules be killed in their entirety — largely based on the distorted reading by opponents that they would have forbidden children from performing chores on their own families’ farms.

Democratic senators facing tight races in farm states — including Jon Testerof Montana, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Claire McCaskill of Missouri — complained directly to the White House. Bipartisan groups in both chambers of Congress introduced legislation that would overturn the regulations if they were finalized.

The White House made no effort to defend its own Labor Department’s rules, directing Secretary Solis to kill them, Obama administration and Labor Department officials said.

The White House would not comment on confidential conversations between staff members and a cabinet officer. But a spokesman, Matthew Lehrich, said in a written statement: “President Obamabelieves that family farms and rural traditions are critical to the American economy and way of life. He has also directed his administration to be responsive to public input in the rulemaking process.” He added that permanently withdrawing the proposal was “very much in keeping with both of those principles.”

In April, the Labor Department abruptly withdrew the rules with a brief written statementexpressing its commitment to respecting the role of parents and family members in passing down rural traditions.

“To be clear,” it continued in a highly unusual comment, “this regulation will not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration.”

Public health and farmworker advocates were shocked. One called it a sucker punch to the Labor Department and to groups that had spent more than a decade trying to modernize farm safety rules for working children.

“I’m very frustrated and disgusted with the White House,” said Rena Steinzor, a professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law and an expert on federal health and safety regulation.

“Normally an agency proposes a regulation and, if there are problems, the agency revises it,” Ms. Steinzor continued. “But we live in an age of greed and insanity, and people on the Hill went crazy. Rather than defend it, the Obama administration just caved.”

Alleviating Hazards

The day he died, Tommy Osier climbed a 10-foot ladder and crawled into the cement silo. The corn was caked along the sides of the bin and also formed a solid crust, or bridge, above his head. He began poking at the corn with an iron rod while his co-worker Patrick Pickvet, then 23, shoveled corn out of a small hole at the outside base of the bin.

Suddenly, the corn above and below Tommy gave way, and in seconds he was gone, buried under the avalanche, heaved against the rough side of the silo, sliding downward, yellow-brown kernels forced up his nose, into his ears and down his throat.

Mr. Pickvet said that the two of them had been in and out of the bin for weeks because of the broken floor augers, manually helping the corn to flow. “I knew it was a little bit of a risk,” he said, “but I didn’t realize it was going to end up being that bad.”

Mr. Pickvet did not know what had happened until the rod emerged from the lower hole. Then Tommy’s cellphone came out, and he could see his leg inside.

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.

By Emma Cott and Stephen McGee

The Safety and Technical Rescue Association teaches grain bin rescue to firefighters serving farming communities.

The Labor Department has increased enforcement in recent years. After issuing 663 citations for grain handling violations in 2008, the number jumped to 1,532 in 2011.

But federal regulators had no jurisdiction over Mr. Schwab’s small farm. Instead, Michigan worker safety officials fined him $7,000 for general safety violations, an amount cut in half once he fixed the broken augers and posted warning signs.

In March, Ms. Osier attended a safety conference in Grand Rapids, Mich., where grain entrapment rescue techniques were being taught to farmers and firefighters using a cross-section of a metal grain bin filled with plastic pellets.

No one there knew she had lost a son in a silo accident nine months earlier, and she was called on from the crowd to participate.

“I said I would, but I didn’t want to be the victim,” she recalled. “So I took off my heels and climbed into that bin and helped place the metal containment panels around the victim.”

She paused, reliving the experience. “My feet were sinking into the pellets,” she said, and then went silent. She could not go on.


Seth Berkman and Jake Rosenwasser contributed reporting from New York.

[Ivy Harper writing here: Re-printed below are Comments from this NYT story that were posted on a Democratic website]

Reply NYT feature: Silos Loom as Death Traps on American Farms (Original post)
Omaha Steve 20 hrs ago OP
newfie11 20 hrs ago #1
meadowlark5 20 hrs ago #2
madrchsod 19 hrs ago #3

Response to Omaha Steve (Original post)

Mon Oct 29, 2012, 07:03 PM

Star Member newfie11 (2,570 posts)

1. Oh yeah

View profile

They are extremely dangerous

Response to Omaha Steve (Original post)

Mon Oct 29, 2012, 07:06 PM

meadowlark5 (229 posts)

2. I grew up in Nebraska corn country and knew 2 people who died in corn silos

View profile

Though I’m sure there were more than what I was aware of.

One was a friend of my sister, he was in the silo doing whatever they do and somehow got sucked under into the the dried corn and suffocated. One was a friend of mine  The dust inside silos can be very combustible. He and another guy were working inside and something sparked an explosion and he died.


Response to Omaha Steve (Original post)

Mon Oct 29, 2012, 07:54 PM

Star Member madrchsod (54,416 posts)

3. two kids died in a silo accident near where i live

View profile

the company they were working for was found negligent for their deaths.

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