Tragic Story of Deaths in a Grain Bin Highlights the Need for Increased Safeguards and Larger Fines

Twenty-five to 30 kids a year die at work. Through its advocacy and co-chairmanship of the Child Labor Coalition, the National Consumers League (NCL) has worked to reduce that number over the years. Each spring, NCL produces a report called “The Five Most Dangerous for Teens.” For several years, we worked to help enact proposed rules to protect kids working in agriculture. Last April, working through the CLC and its members we helped organize a press conference to highlight the dangers that young workers can encounter while working on farms and agricultural facilities.

Unfortunately, the organized farm lobby succeeded in forcing the Obama administration to withdraw the youth farm safety rules—a decision that we estimate will lead to the unnecessary deaths of 50 to 100 youth working on farms over the next decade.

This week, we heard the sobering story on National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting System’s News Hour each featured in-depth stories about a particularly lethal type of agricultural work: labor in grain silo facilities, which in a typical year kills 15 or more workers. According to recent data, 20 percent of the victims of grain engulfments are young workers.

NPR and PBS worked with the Center for Public Integrity, highlighting a terrible tragedy in Mount Carroll, Illinois nearly three years ago. Two teens, “running down the corn,” were engulfed by grain and killed while working in a silo: 14-year-old Wyatt Whitebread and 19-year-old Alex Pacas. Will Piper, a 20-year-old co-worker, barely escaped with his life because someone threw him a bucket that he was able to put over his head. The bucket prevented the flowing grain from asphyxiating him. Today, Piper lives in guilt because he found the job that killed his best friend Alex.

Among the worst aspects of the Whitebread-Pacas accidentally deaths, which we highlighted in our April 2012 press conference, are the facts that Wyatt, at 14, was too young to be doing such dangerous work. He and Alex also should have been wearing safety harnesses as they walked on top of the crusty grain trying to loosen it. The facility possessed the mandatory harnesses that would have saved the boys lives, but did instruct or compel the teens to wear them.

The NPR and PBS stories grew out of reporting from the Center for Public Integrity, which found something very disturbing: fines levied by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as a result of preventable grain engulfments were  typically reduced over 50 percent and in some cases well over 90 percent by OSHA.

In the deaths of Alex Pacas and Wyatt Whitebread, OSHA found 12 “willful violations” and initially leveled $555,000 in fines. This amount was later reduced to $200,000. A Center for Public Interest-NPR analysis found that the $9.2 million in fines proposed by OSHA for engulfments that had killed 179 people between 1984 and 2012 were eventually reduced to $3.8 million. Rarely, if ever, are criminal sanctions imposed even with repeat offenders.

” Too often we find that teens are sent in to do this work –without harnesses or protective equipment — and when disaster strikes and workers die OSHA fines are negotiated ever downward and often are a fraction of the authorized fines and penalties,” said Sally Greenber, NCL’s executive director and a  co-chair of the CLC.

NCL and the CLC believe strongly that youth working on farms and agricultural facilities need to have stronger protections. We urge the Obama administration to reconsider the youth occupational safety rules it withdrew last April.

Why allow teen workers to engage in jobs–like working in grain facilities–that we know to be extremely dangerous? And in cases where employers are found to be at fault for the death of teen workers, why are fines consistently and dramatically reduced?