[Marxism] 21st century chimney sweeps
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Mon Oct 29 09:28:50 MDT 2012
NY Times October 28, 2012
Silos Loom as Death Traps on American Farms
By JOHN M. BRODER
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
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
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 guidelines established 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 worded letter 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
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
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 statement expressing 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
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.”
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
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,”
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.
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
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.
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