In March, NPR published an article discussing terrible tragedies that have occurred as a result of entrapment in grain bins.
Several recent deaths have occurred when workers became trapped inside of grain bins and were buried alive. These incidents are drawing attention to some of the dangers faced by workers in the agricultural industry who are responsible for growing and producing the foods that we enjoy on our tables every day.
Our Spartanburg, work accident lawyers know that employers routinely hire young workers to work in grain bins, sometimes violating child labor laws in order to do so. Many employers also skirt safety regulations and put workers in serious danger. Unfortunately, this can have devastating consequences for workers and yet there is limited enforcement of safety laws designed to stop this type of bad behavior from occurring.
Grain Bin Accidents and Deaths
NRP began the discussion of grain bin injuries by telling the tragic story of several workers who lost their lives when they became entrapped in a bin. One such worker was a 14-yer-old boy who had told his mother just a day before his death that he couldn't stand the thought of going back into the bins. He and two other young men ages 19 and 20 climbed into a four-story tall grain bin filled with 250,000 bushels of wet, crusty corn. These young workers were required to walk along the grain in order to break up the kernels.
Unfortunately, at approximately 9:45 in the morning, one of the boys began to sink under the corn. He had completely disappeared underneath it within minutes as his two co-workers struggled to try to stay on the surface of the grain. Two of the young workers, including the 14-year-old, died in the grain bin when they were buried alive underneath the grain. The third young man was rescued and carried out six hours later.
In response to the accident, OSHA fined the employer a total of $555,000. Fines are the customary response by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to grain bin deaths, of which there have been more than 179 since 1984.
Like in most cases where workers died in grain bins, however, OSHA subsequently slashed the fine. In this case, the fine was cut by more than half of the original $555,000.
In past cases, OHSA has reduced fines more than 60 percent of the time and a total of more than $9 million in initial fines were cut. Some fines were even cut as much as 97 percent. OSHA justifies cutting these fines because employers have a right to negotiate and to challenge citations issued and because OSHA must do the best they can within the current regulatory system.
Protecting Grain Bin Workers
Grain bin accidents are far too common and OSHA can do little, as the agency has no prosecutorial authority to bring criminal charges against employers. Although family members of employees who are killed may file wrongful death lawsuits to obtain damages after these types of accidents occur, the right to do so may be restricted by workers' compensation laws, by assumption of risk defenses or by a host of other legal complexities.
This means that employers who allow unsafe conditions to occur may be able to escape major financial consequences when workers are killed by being entrapped and buried alive under grain. It is an egregious oversight in worker safety laws that so little can be done and lawmakers should crack down on employers who put their workers at risk. Those who lose loved ones also need to be sure they have top-notch legal representation so they will stand the best chance of a successful claim against the employer.