Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Silo accidents claim young lives

The New York Times yesterday ran a front-page feature on silo accidents in the United States.  An excerpt from John M. Broder's story follows:
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.  (A visual depicting the process is here).  Broder notes that 80 farmworkers--14 of them teenage boys--have died in silo accidents since 2007.  About a fifth of silo accidents involve workers under the age of 20.

Experts say the vast majority of these deaths are preventable.  The accidents occur when grain in silos "cascades out of control" while workers are in the silos to dislodge grain from the sides.  When the grain cascades down, the worker may be trapped--and crushed and asphyxiated.

One cause of the rise deaths, Broder notes, is the rise in the volume of corn being produced and stored to meet global demands for food, animal feed, and even ethanol.  

The deaths also reveal "continuing flaws in the enforcement of worker safety laws and weaknesses in rules meant to protect" young farmworkers.   The Labor Department last year proposed regulations that would increase protections for these young workers, but even those regulations--which the Obama administration pulled back from--would not have protected child and teenage workers on family farms and small operations, which is where 70% of grain entrapment accidents occur.  

An earlier post about the U.S. Labor Department's proposal, which was subsequently withdrawn, is here.  A New York Times op-ed about them is here.   

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