Sunday, March 31, 2013

Paltry fines, little deterrent in grain bin deaths

NPR has been reporting this week on grain bin deaths, with a particular focus on OSHA penalties and the trend to diminish these penalties and fines on appeal.  Here the lede from one of Howard Berkes's stories:
Nearly 500 farmers and workers have suffocated in grain storage bins in the past 40 years. The worst year on record was 2010, with 26 people dying. Hefty fines and criminal charges are possible for negligent employers. But NPR and The Center for Public Integrity found that enforcement is weak, even as workers continue to die.
NPR presents thorough documentation of these grain bin deaths here, searchable by state and including details of initial fines imposed and any subsequent reductions to those fines.  And here is a discussion of those reductions: 
OSHA says companies have a legal right to challenge and negotiate fines and citations. 
"We do everything we can within the current regulatory framework," says OSHA administrator David Michaels. "We issue large fines. We go after companies we think are scofflaws. We do repeat visits to the worst companies." 
Michaels also says OSHA has urged both state and federal prosecutors to file criminal charges. "We don't have criminal prosecution powers," he says. 
Even in the most egregious cases of employer misconduct, in which workers as young as 14 were endangered or killed, no one has gone to jail. In fact, Department of Labor criminal referral records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that criminal prosecutions are rare in grain deaths. 
At issue regarding many of the violations is whether or not the silo owners were "willful" in violating safety laws.  In one grain bin accident that took the lives of two minors in Mount Carroll, Illinois, in 2010, the following violations were identified--in addition to the employment of under-age workers:

  • required the boys to walk down the grain
  • didn't provide required grain bin safety training
  • didn't require the use of federally mandated safety harnesses, which were hanging in a shed near the bin, dusty and unused
  • didn't provide a trained observer to respond to trouble
  • and kept the conveyor system running while the boys were in the bin, which created the quicksand effect that trapped them.
The owner of the storage in that case, Haasbach LLC, asserted it was not subject to OSHA jurisdiction or regulation. Haasbach's lawyers "claimed it was a farm operation exempt from the rules that apply to commercial grain facilities and the violations cited by OSHA."  That argument apparently failed.

This discussion reminds me of Anne Marie Lofaso's "What We Owe Our Coal Miners," in which she seeks to answer the question: "What do citizens of a “just” society owe workers, such as coal miners, who daily risk their lives for our collective comfort?"  Perhaps grain bin workers are (at least somewhat) similarly situated:  they do important work that contributes to our collective comfort, inasmuch as lower grain prices do that.  So, what do we owe them?   More specifically, I suppose, the question is whether we owe them greater safety precautions and, in the absence of such (reasonable) precautions, whether the federal government should impose fines to create a greater deterrent to the sort of (apparently common) behavior that puts grain bin workers at risk.

Coincidentally, as I was drafting this post, the New York Times posted this story regarding how OSHA fails to address "fester[ing]" long-term health risks in another industry, furniture manufacturing.  That story, too, quotes OSHA administrator David Michaels.  Here's an excerpt from Ian Urbina's story:
OSHA, the watchdog agency that many Americans love to hate and industry often faults as overzealous, has largely ignored long-term threats. Partly out of pragmatism, the agency created by President Richard M. Nixon to give greater attention to health issues has largely done the opposite. 
OSHA devotes most of its budget and attention to responding to here-and-now dangers rather than preventing the silent, slow killers that, in the end, take far more lives. Over the past four decades, the agency has written new standards with exposure limits for 16 of the most deadly workplace hazards, including lead, asbestos and arsenic. But for the tens of thousands of other dangerous substances American workers handle each day, employers are largely left to decide what exposure level is safe. 
By contrast, OSHA has two dozen pages of regulations just on ladders and stairs. 
“I’m the first to admit this is broken,” said David Michaels, the OSHA director, referring to the agency’s record on dealing with workplace health threats. “Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people end up on the gurney.”
The furniture manufacturing discussed in the story, and the injured worker on which it focuses, are in nonmetropolitan western North Carolina.  The dateline is Taylorsville, North Carolina, population 1,799.  Taylorsville is the county seat of Alexander County, population 37,193.  The county has a poverty rate higher than 16%, and only 11.3% of its population have at least a bachelor's degree.   In other words, a lot of Alexander County's workforce has little bargaining power with employers.

An earlier post about federal failures to protect extraction industry workers is here.       

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