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The commercial grain industry responded to a record number of grain entrapments and deaths in 2010 with more safety videos, publications and training programs.
"Have tragic incidents still happened? Yes," says Jeff Adkisson, who heads the Grain and Feed Association of Illinois. "Are we working to reduce them further? Absolutely."
Randy Gordon, president of the National Grain and Feed Association, sees no need for additional regulations. "The [occupational safety and health] standards, we think, are very adequate to address this danger," he says.
Even worker safety activists agree, saying tougher enforcement of existing standards by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) — along with more criminal charges and more serious consequences for breaking the law — would help lower the death toll.
Adkisson suggests that grain entrapments and deaths on farms, which are largely exempt from grain handling regulations, should get more media and regulatory attention.
"We've got farmers who are building more space and bigger space, and it's going to cause more issues," he told a grain bin safety conference in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, last fall. "I think it's time for industry, for government, for all of us to pause and have the conversation again about who is exempt and who is not exempt from some of the standards."
"Our industry," Adkisson said, "likes to play on a level playing field."
The suggestion that farms should be subjected to OSHA regulation drew defiance from James Meade, a farmer in Tiffin, Iowa, who was sitting in the audience at the conference.
"The bottom line to me is, don't pass a law that I won't obey, because I won't obey it," Meade told the group when it came time for questions. "I'll tell anybody that. I'll tell the OSHA guy that comes up to my place, 'I'm not going to do it.' "
Extending OSHA regulations to farms would likely encounter stiff resistance in Congress. It would be a broadening of regulation in an era in which existing OSHA rules are under attack.
More than 300,000 farms have one or more grain storage structures, says Bill Field of Purdue University, who closely tracks grain entrapments. "Some of those [farms] may have 20 [grain] structures," Field adds, "so we're talking about several million facilities."
Adkisson quotes one of Field's most widely repeated statistics. Seventy percent of grain entrapment incidents, he says, occur on farms not subject to federal safety regulations. Field has documented close to 1,000 incidents and more than 660 deaths since 1964.
But an NPR/Center for Public Integrity analysis of incidents at grain facilities regulated by OSHA found dozens of cases Field did not have in his database, which even OSHA refers to for statistics.
As a result, Field has revised his numbers. They now show that reported grain entrapments and deaths occur more often at commercial facilities than previously believed — about 48 percent of the time. In other words, the entrapment problem is shared equally between industry and farms.
Field also has close to 400 cases in his database for which the locations of the incidents are unknown.
The Obama administration proposed a rule in 2011 that would have put dangerous farm work off-limits to young people. Federal law already imposes age restrictions for grain bin work both on and off farms. Grain bins are defined as confined spaces. On farms, kids younger than 16 are prohibited from working in them; in commercial grain bins, 18 is the minimum age for work.
But the reaction to the Obama proposal shows that expanded regulation attracts stiff resistance.
This written public comment sent to the Labor Department was typical: "From your bureaucratic overreach in an area of family farming life that the government has NO business being in, you are trampling my rights."
The administration dumped the proposed rule last year and promised it would never reappear as long as President Obama is in the White House.
Congress has also balked at expanding regulation, defeating measures that would have toughened criminal penalties for worker deaths. The measures would have made felony charges possible — and would have lengthened prison terms — when egregious behavior by employers led to worker deaths.
OSHA welcomes tougher criminal consequences, says David Michaels, OSHA's administrator.
"Higher fines and criminal prosecutions would enhance our effectiveness and help prevent injuries and fatalities," Michaels says. "We'd love to see that changed."
In the meantime, grain storage capacity continues to increase, with more and larger grain bins going up on farms and at commercial sites. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that capacity is at record levels in the commercial world, with 10.2 billion bushels of storage. Storage capacity on farms is at 13 billion bushels, which is close to a record.
Grain safety advocates like Ron Hayes fear that this growing storage capacity, coupled with another wet and robust harvest, will tempt some employers to send workers into bins to unclog grain without proper safety procedures, training or equipment.
Hayes' 19-year-old son Patrick died when he was buried in a grain bin in Florida in 1993. Every day, he says, he's haunted by the image of his son at the morgue, "eyes, nose, face, mouth and ears full of corn dust." He often gets calls now from distraught families whose loved ones suffocated in grain.
Hayes worries about the next wet and bin-busting harvest year.
"What's going to happen," Hayes asks, "on an October evening when they're cleaning out a grain bin [and] they've got to get it done because they've got a new pile of grain coming in the next day?"
Chris Hamby of the Center for Public Integrity contributed to this report.