Death by Silo

One of the great economic triumphs of the past 50 years has been the steadily declining rate of workplace fatalities. Getting a job that’s less likely to kill you is, after all, just as important as getting a job that pays slightly more. But John Broder writes about an important exception to the trend of greater workplace safety: silo accidents.

The annual number of such accidents rose throughout the past decade, reaching a peak of at least 26 deaths in 2010, before dropping somewhat since.

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.

The deaths are horrific and virtually all preventable.

Experts say the continuing rate of silo deaths is due in part to the huge amount of corn being produced and stored in the United States to meet the global demand for food, feed and, increasingly, ethanol-based fuel.

That the deaths persist reveals continuing flaws in the enforcement of worker safety laws and weaknesses in rules meant to protect the youngest farmworkers. Nearly 20 percent of all serious grain bin accidents involve workers under the age of 20.

The Labor Department proposed new regulations aimed at reducing the number of kids killed doing farm-related work, but it provoked a Fox News freakout about Obama banning kids from doing household chores, and the administration squashed the rule fearing a reputation as anti-business.