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Death of 14-Year-Old Worker Due to Dangerous Conditions in Grain Storage Bins

March 26, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
An investigation by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity found dangerous -- sometimes deadly -- working conditions in America's grain storage industry. Since 1984, 179 people have died at commercial storage facilities. Margaret Warner is joined by Howard Berkes, one of the lead NPR reporters who investigated the story.
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GWEN IFILL: Now: A new investigation finds tragic accidents and the lack of government oversight in an important sector of the farming economy.

Margaret Warner has the story.

MARGARET WARNER: Working conditions in much of the agriculture industry rarely capture national attention. And that includes the grain storage business.

But the storage of grain in huge silos is a growing business, ever more so in the age of biofuels. Now a new investigation by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity, among others, is raising tough questions about its labor practices.

Among the findings, there have been at least 179 deaths at commercial storage facilities since 1984 and numerous others on farms themselves. In many cases, workers like 14-year-old Wyatt Whitebread of Mount Carroll, Ill., literally suffocated to death, buried in corn in the silo. Other deaths result from explosions.

2010 was the deadliest year on record, with 26 killed. Commercial facilities are overseen by a federal agency, OSHA, but the investigation found that the government’s initial fines of the companies ultimately were reduced by nearly 60 percent.

Howard Berkes of NPR is one of the lead reporters on this story, and he joins me now.

And, Howard, welcome back to the program.

First of all, describe how these deaths occur, specifically that 14-year-old boy in Illinois. What happened there?

HOWARD BERKES, NPR: Wyatt Whitebread, along with two co-workers, were sent into a grain bin in Illinois to walk down the grain.

That’s a process by which they go in with picks and shovels and they’re knocking down clogged corn that’s crusted on the side of the bin. There may be corn that’s blocking a hole in the bottom of the bin through which the corn is supposed to drain or it may just be bridging up, clogging on the surface.

And it’s specifically illegal — a law in 1996 made walking down grain illegal. But they were sent in to do it. I should add that Wyatt Whitebread, at age 14, was underage. He shouldn’t have been working in that bin. And there were a number of other things that were done that put those boys in danger, including the failure to use safety harnesses, which were actually hanging in a shed near the bin, and they weren’t trained on what to do. They didn’t realize that they were in danger.

MARGARET WARNER: So, I gather then they just got — somehow, he got sucked down into the grain?

HOWARD BERKES: What happened is that underneath the bin is a conveyer belt that is pulling corn out of the bin through holes in the bottom of the bin.

And there was one hole operating when they walked into the bin. There was a cone that had formed in the center, and the grain was flowing down that cone. And they knew enough to sort of stay away from that flowing corn.

But the supervisor of the facility opened up a second hole. And a second cone formed. And the flowing grain caught Wyatt first. He was pulled under. Alex Pacas and Will Piper tried to pull him out, and they also were caught. Wyatt went completely under the corn. Alex followed. And Will was caught up to his neck.

MARGARET WARNER: So …

HOWARD BERKES: He tried to keep the corn away from Alex’s face, but was unable to do that.

MARGARET WARNER: So, how does OSHA — what does OSHA do with these cases and what do they — how do they explain the fact that the initial fines they levy are so often reduced dramatically?

HOWARD BERKES: Well, in this case, the fine of $555,000 dollars was one of the biggest ever that OSHA levied. And then it cut the fine more than 60 percent.

And what we found in our investigation was that that is par for the course. OSHA cuts fines about 60 percent of the time in these cases when workers die. The average fine is cut by 50 percent. And this is a system in which OSHA operates — other government agencies basically do the same thing with fines.

They negotiate with the employers. They take into account how much money the employer has, what their income is, various factors like that. And then they come to some resolution. But the problem is that these deaths have persisted year after year after year. 2010, as you said, was the worst year on record.

So, fines, which are supposed to be a disincentive for employers, turn out not to be a disincentive if the employers can negotiate them down. And I should add that fines have been negotiated down as much as 92 percent, 97 percent. They almost disappear in some cases.

MARGARET WARNER: Is it from — I mean, is there some pressure from the companies? Is there — from your — from your investigation anyway, is there too much coziness between the regulators and the industry?

HOWARD BERKES: I don’t know what it is that propels OSHA to cut fines on such a regular basis.

It is the right of an employer to challenge these fines. And the employer can go to an administrative law court if they don’t like the way that OSHA is handling it and how much the fines have been reduced.

Look, there’s a lot of pressure in this country to go easy on businesses, to not hurt businesses, and to not over-regulate. And OSHA is probably the one agency in the government that gets the most pressure. And that may have something to do with this.

MARGARET WARNER: And, very briefly, there are something like 4,500 workplace deaths a year in this country. This is a relatively small amount. What motivated you to spend months and months on this?

HOWARD BERKES: Well, because what happens with workers dying in grain happens with workers who die in every other workplace.

Fines are routinely cut. It’s very rare to have a prosecution in these cases. In fact, federal law is really weak. You can kill a worker through your negligence, and the most you will get is six months in jail, and it’s a misdemeanor. Federal prosecutors don’t want to take cases like that. It’s much more serious if you kill an endangered species in this country. It’s a felony with more serious jail time.

If you poison a stream, and you don’t even kill anybody, you can get more jail time and it’s a felony. So, workers don’t get the protection of the law. And what happens in grain bins is really indicative of what happens in all kinds of workplaces.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Howard Berkes of NPR, thank you.

And on our website, you can find links to all of the reporting from this series.