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NPR 'Grain' Series Investigates Industry, Sparks Response

Mar 30, 2013
Originally published on April 1, 2013 7:59 am
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All this week NPR and our reporting partner, the Center for Public Integrity, has brought us stories about the dangers of grain bin entrapments for farm workers. The last 40 years, close to 500 people have suffocated in grain bins. 2010 was the worst year on record. We also documented the weak enforcement of worker safety laws that regulate grain storage and handling.

NPR's Howard Berkes reported the stories and joins us now. Howard, thanks so much for being with us.

HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

SIMON: We're going to find out what's happened since the stories aired, but for those of you who might not have heard them, what's happened to these grain workers?

BERKES: What happens is they go into these massive grain bins on farms and commercial grain elevators to break up clogged corn. This is called walking down grain. We focused on a particular incident in Mount Carroll, Illinois in 2010. This was a massive grain bin, four stories high, filled with a quarter-million bushels of corn kernels.

There workers went into that bin; one was just 14 years old, Wyatt Whitebread. He was sucked under first and disappeared in the corn. Nineteen year old Alex Pacas followed along with his best friend Will Piper. He had just turned 20. They sank to their chests and corn was falling and flowing from above as well. Piper told us what happened next.

WILL PIPER: The last chunk of corn came flowing down and went around his face. I still had one arm free and I tried to sweep it away from his face as much as I could and eventually there was just too much and after a little bit his hand was sticking up above the grain and I could just see his scalp and his hand stopped moving.

And the corn was up to my chin at that point.

SIMON: And Howard, it's illegal, isn't it, to send somebody into a grain bin to walk down the grain as you called it?

BERKES: Yeah, it is, and it's also illegal to send somebody into a grain bin without proper training, without safety harnesses and lifelines, without shutting off and locking out the machinery that creates this kind of quicksand flow that caught these boys. All of that happened in the Mount Carroll case. And we also found that employers have done this sort of thing over and over and over again, you know, despite hundreds of deaths and despite extensive safety awareness programs and warnings that have been sent out to the grain industry.

And despite all that, these persistent violations and deaths, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration slashes fines, even in the most egregious cases, and that's exactly what they did in Illinois.

SIMON: How often are there criminal prosecutions in these cases?

BERKES: Almost never, even in the worst cases. And that's because, you know, egregious and willful behavior that results in the death of a worker in this country is only a misdemeanor under federal law and it carries a maximum jail time of six months. So, you know, no federal prosecutor is going to make a career on misdemeanor cases, you know, with little jail time like this.

And, you know, if you took an endangered species into a grain bin and it drowned in the grain, that would be a felony with more jail time.

SIMON: Of course these stories have just aired, but I wonder if there's any sense yet that anybody has paid attention, is beginning to take action?

BERKES: Well, just as our stories were about to run, Senator Patty Murray, Democrat from Washington state, reintroduced a bill called the Protecting America's Workers Act. And that would, among other things, make employer willfulness in a worker's death a felony. It would also raise civil fines and provide for longer jail time.

But that measure has failed in Congress before. We've also been told this week that OSHA has now sent out word in response to our stories internally that the agency is under scrutiny, so officials need to think more about the penalty reductions that they make in these cases that involve worker death. And government sources who are familiar with the Mount Carroll case tell us that the Justice Department is taking another look at possible criminal charges. In that case, they had declined to prosecute before. And finally, Will Piper, who we've heard from, the survivor in the Mount Carroll case who saw his friends die, he told us he was trying to raise money for a headstone at the grave of his friend, Alex Pacas.

PIPER: I felt guilty that I got Alex the job, that I wasn't able to save Wyatt, that I wasn't able to save Alex. I think that I'll be like a living amend.

BERKES: And an anonymous donor has come forward and has pledged to fully fund a headstone so that Alex Pacas can have a proper grave.

SIMON: Howard, thanks so much for being with us.

BERKES: You're welcome, Scott.

SIMON: NPR's Howard Berkes, who reported our series, Buried in Grain. It's posted on our website at npr.org.

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