The Death Trap on Your Farm

Posted on October 29, 2012

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In May of this year, an Amish teenager was asphyxiated in a silo in Indiana County, Pennsylvania.

In 2010, two boys (ages 14 and 19) were killed in a grain-elevator complex in Illinois.  The younger boy was caught in a torrent of falling corn and pulled beneath.  His co-worker dove after to save him. Both were killed.  A third young man (age 20) rushed to help his friend.  Trapped against his friend’s lifeless body for almost 12 hours, he managed to keep his head above the corn as 300 rescue workers drained the bin and freed him.

These stories are horrific, but sadly, they are not uncommon.  The New York Times reported yesterday that silo-related deaths have risen on American farms over the past few years:

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…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 teenage boys.

Since silage turns breathable oxygen into toxic carbon monoxide, open spaces at the top of the bins can be potentially fatal.  The silage also produces dangerous gases, called silo gases.  Since air circulation in silos is poor, asphyxiation becomes a real possibility.

The other hazard, as highlighted by the Illinois case, is falling grain.

In response to the alarming spike in silo-related accidents, the Labor Department is amping up enforcement of grain handling laws, but as a federal office their jurisdiction is limited.  New regulations proposed by the Labor Department would have required those working in silos and similar facilities to be over 18, but President Obama abandoned the controversial legislation this year when he received criticism that the regulations were anti-business.  Many small businessmen and farmers–already struggling to survive in a tough economy and in a year marked by historically bad weather–resented the idea of these new rules being imposed on their operations.

But the sad fact is, these accidents are very preventable. The NYT reported that an elevator is all it takes to protect silo workers.  Just a pulley system, safety harness, and board partition could have saved any of the lives lost in silo accidents, and the safety system would cost less than $1,000.

Is this a matter where the government should step in, especially in the case of young workers?  Some would say yes, that the federal government exists for this purpose and that with children’s lives at stake these laws are a no-brainer.  If young people are working there, perhaps it is the role of the authorities to protect them from unsafe work environments.

On the other hand, farmers are traditionally recognized as a hardworking and sensible segment of the American public.  Perhaps what is lacking is not more federal regulation, but simply awareness.  The argument can be made without overgeneralizing or investing too much in cultural stereotypes: these are men and women with a vested interest.  Their own lives, and their children’s, are at stake.  The New York Times broke a story that many were unaware was even an issue in American public life.  Maybe more education is the better route–both on the problem itself and the right way to prevent it–in order to avoid adding excessive burdens to farmers.

What do you think?  Is this a matter that the federal government should regulate?  Do you have a silo on your property?  What safety precautions have you taken or will you take?

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