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After Spike in Worker Fatalities, Labor Law Attorneys call for OSHA Regulation of Farms

grain binLabor activists and Workers’ Compensation Attorneys have brought the question of farm safety regulation back onto center stage.

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, corn production and storage on farms doubled from 1978 to 2012, increasing from 5.4 billion bushels to a record 11 billion bushels. Yet with that increased output has come tragedy: worker deaths from being trapped and suffocating in corn or other grain bins (wheat, barley, soybeans) reached a peak in 2010, according to a Center for Public Integrity investigation. In more than 50 incidents that occurred that year, 26 were fatal. More than 60% of those workplace fatalities occurred on farms, as did all but 2 of the incidents involving workers under 16 years of age.

Large commercial operations are overseen by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Most farms, however, are not, but labor law attorneys and other concerned groups feel they should be.

Even Jeff Adkisson, the vice president of Illinois’ Grain and Feed Association (which represents commercial operators) admitted to participants at a safety conference that “We’ve got farmers who are building more space and bigger space, and it’s going to cause more issues.”  Speaking in Cedar Rapids, he noted that “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.”

Adkisson and others in the grain industry point out that the bulk of entrapments occur on farms. That data comes from the work of Purdue University professor William Field, who estimates that 70% of all incidents occur on farms, while only 30% occur at commercial facilities where OSHA has oversight.

In recent years, the number of commercial grain bins has plummeted across the U.S., falling from its peak of 15,300 in 1979 to only 8,801 in 2012.  At the same time, commercial storage capacity increased from 7 billion bushels to 10.5 billion bushels.  Today, on-farm grain storage hovers around 13 billion bushels, upt from 10.9 billion bushels in 1997. USDA researchers indicate that 300,000 farms have one or more storage structures, and “some of those may have 20 structures,” Field said. “So we’re talking about several million facilities.” Those increases, of course, drive an increase in workplace injuries, Third-party injuries, and other on-the-job accidents requiring medication attention or workers’ compensation.

Randy Gordon, who oversees the National Grain and Feed Association, stated that his organization has  reinfoced safety efforts, explaining that “The OSHA standards … are very adequate to address this danger.” His assessment was that “There was an unfortunate spike [in deaths] that occurred but we have hopefully turned that corner now and we’re on the downward trend.”

Most farms in the U.S. remain outside the regulation of OSHA, making working conditions and workplace safety measures an unknown.  How so safety official know that owners are doing an adequate job to prevent grain entrapments?

Bringing them under OSHA’s jurisdiction won’t be easy. During a public comment session at the Cedar Rapids conference, farmer James Meade rose to declare: “The bottom line to me is, don’t pass a law that I won’t obey because I won’t obey it. I’ll tell anybody that. I’ll tell the OSHA guy that comes up to my place I’m not going to do it.” His statement was followed by murmurs of disapproval — and no applause — from other farmers in the audience.

Yet Meade’s position was echoed by thousands of farmers and others in the agricultural industry back in 2011-12 following a proposed rule from the Department of Labor and Industries that would have limited the work of children and teens on farms (no more driving tractors, for example).  There are already age restrictions on farms for grain-bin work that prohibit workers under 16 years of age.  That law already applies to commercial sites (no one younger than 18 for certain tasks).

The new regulations were propelled by studies demonstrating that “children are significantly more likely to be killed while performing agricultural work than while working in all other industries combined.” Sadly,  written comments denouncing regulation and oversight were widespread; in a typical comment, one person wrote “From your bureaucratic overreach in an area of family farming life that the government has NO business being in, you are trampling my rights … YOU don’t love my child any more than I do … You people are nuts!”

Bullied back into a corner, the department withdrew the rule last April. “To be clear,” it said in a statement, “this regulation will not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration.”

Yet people like Catherine Rylatt have not let up. Rylatt became a prolific grain-safety advocate after her 19-year-old nephew, Alex Pacas, suffocated in an Illinois bin in 2010; in the course of her campaigning, she has grown tired of employer resistance.  At a conference in Missouri, she tried to convey her safety message to an 18-year-old member of the Future Farmers of America. The young man argued aggressively, maintaining that farmers would refuse even the most basic government rules.

“The kid is 18, and he’s already got the attitude of a 60-year-old farmer,” Rylatt said. “It’s scary, is what it is.”

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