grain silo

In what may be the largest mass casualty workplace event this year, three workers were killed after being trapped in a grain silo in Pennsylvania.  The workers included a 47-year-old, a 19-year-old and a 14-year-old.  A 16-year-old boy died at the same farm in March when he was trapped under a horse-drawn manure spreader that weighed more than 10 tons.

And despite the high death toll and age of the workers, neither OSHA nor the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour division (which enforces child labor laws) can do anything about it.

The Center Daily Times reports that Andrew Beiler, 47, and his two sons — a 19-year-old and a 14-year-old whose names were not released — died of asphyxiation from “silo gas.” Apparently, “One of Beiler’s sons was working in the silo when his father checked on him, Michael said, citing first responder reports. The eldest Beiler jumped in to help, but was overcome by the gas. His second son followed, but was also overcome.”

Rescuers dying when trying to rescue the original victims is not uncommon in confined space or trenching incidents. Before OSHA’s confined space standard was issued in 1993, more rescuers died in confined spaces than initial victims.

Grain silos are well known death traps that kill dozens of workers, often children, every year. When grain gets stuck, workers often go in at the top of a silo to loosen the grain or “walk it down.” But when the grain starts flowing, it can suck the worker down like quick sand causing suffocation. Often multiple workers die when others go into the grain in an attempt to rescue the first victim.   Although there has been no investigation yet, these deaths are currently being blamed on “silo gas” (usually carbon dioxide or nitrogen dioxide) which forms when grain decomposes and can result in a person collapsing and dying within minutes, either due to oxygen displacement or toxicity.

OSHA’s grain handling standard requires employers to protect workers by training them, stop the conveyor system that moves grain at the bottom of the silo, use safety harnesses and provide a trained observer to respond to trouble. The standard also requires the air to be tested before entry and that the silo be ventilated.

Why Neither OSHA Nor Wage And Hour Can Do Anything

Farms are dangerous workplaces.  There were 39 farm and agricultural fatalities in Pennsylvania in 2020 according to Penn State Extension. This was a significant from the previous five-year average of 27.4 per year. Ten of the 2020 fatalities — over one-quarter — were 19 years and younger. You’d think that OSHA and the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour division would be all over this.

There were 39 farm and agricultural fatalities in Pennsylvania in 2020 according to Penn State Extension. This was a significant from the previous five-year average of 27.4 per year. Ten of the 2020 fatalities — over one-quarter — were 19 years and younger.

All in the Family

But in this case, even where three workers killed, including a 14 year old child, no federal agency has the power to do anything.  Why?

First, these were all family members. Even where restrictions exist limiting employment of children, family members are excluded by Wage and Hour regulations. During the Obama administration, the Department of Labor attempted to significantly strengthen safety protections for minors working on farms, although even these would have excluded family members. Under intense pressure from farm state legislators, that proposal was withdrawn in the run-up to the 2012 elections and then-Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis promised not to resurrect it after the election.

In other words, on farms, parents are allowed to kill their children, as long as it’s done in a work context.

Small Farms

Second, even if we exclude the 14-year old and exclude the fact the the 19-year-old was a family member, OSHA would likely still be forbidden from investigating the incident or issuing citations because OSHA is not to enforce safety standards on small farms. Since the early 1970’s Congress has forbidden OSHA from stepping foot on a farm with 10 or fewer employees, to cite — or even investigate — work-related fatalities, injuries or hazards.  The appropriations “rider” states:

That none of the funds appropriated under this paragraph [OSHA funds] shall be obligated or expended to prescribe, issue, administer, or enforce any standard, rule, regulation, or order under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 which is applicable to any person who is engaged in a farming operation which does not maintain a temporary labor camp and employs ten or fewer employees . .

In other words, on farms, parents are allowed to kill their children, as long as it’s done in a work context.

This means that OSHA cannot check for hazards before injuries or deaths occur, or respond to employee complaints about unsafe conditions. OSHA is not even allowed to provide compliance advice to small farms. (Note, some OSHA state plan states do enforce OSHA standards on small farms — as long as they use non-federal funds.)

Congressional Democrats have periodically attempted to remove or modify the language, but legislators from farm states and the powerful American Farm Bureau have succeeded in keeping it. Even a 1999 proposal from Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) that would have given OSHA permission to investigate deaths on small farms if the victims were children failed. Reed’s proposal would only have allowed OSHA to determine the cause of the incident, with no power to impose penalties. Still not good enough for the American Farm Bureau.

No life, even a child’s life is too high to pay for unimpeded food production.

History of Silo Deaths

OSHA has long struggled to prevent grain silo deaths. After 26 deaths in 2010 —many of them teen-agers — then OSHA Assistant Secretary David Michaels sent letters to nearly 3,300 grain facilities in the country calling on them to to “prevent these needless deaths.” OSHA also launched a nation-wide National Emphasis Program targeting grain facilities which led to significant decrease in grain silo-related fatalities.

Family Farms: Going, going….

Nevertheless, OSHA was still forbidden from addressing hazards on small farms. In 2013, OSHA came under withering attacks from Republicans for mistakenly citing a small farm due to grain hazards and was forced to tighten its prohibition against enforcing the law on small farms. Republicans joined the Wall St. Journal jumped in declaring that “Tom Perez’s Labor enforcers go after the family farm.”

Of course, the family farm argument is based on a myth. The fact is that the family farmer, bedrock of America, feeding the country and the world is a thing of the long gone past. Small family farms barely exist anymore, having been replaced by corporate agriculture. In 2017, small farms of 1-9 acres represented just 0.1% of all farmland in the U.S.

In 2017, small farms of 1-9 acres represented just 0.1% of all farmland in the U.S.

But in the case of farms, size matters. And the ironic — or tragic — fact is that small farms are much more dangerous than large farms.

The reason for that, according to Dennis Murphy, a Penn State agricultural safety specialist. “As you get more employees, you take on more of a management structure, and you start looking like more industrial employers and, therefore, you come under safety regulations,” Murphy said. “As you get bigger, you get new farms that tend to be more safe.”

Amish Workers

This farm was owned by an Amish family.  And although their religion has nothing to do with the inability of the federal government to protect workers on small farms, OSHA compliance among “Anabaptists” (e.g. Amish or Mennonite) has long been controversial. For example, there is a long history of fighting over whether Amish workers can be required to comply with certain OSHA standards.  The issue of whether they are required to wear hard hats came up at a Congressional hearing in 2015. OSHA exempts Amish workers from wearing hard hats, but MSHA requires them which did not sit well with Amish workers in a gravel quarry.

The Amish dress code allows men to wear traditional black and straw hats, but not hard hats. It is part of the society’s deeply held religious convictions that value modesty, said Edsel Burdge, a research associate at the Young Center.

***

Rather than defy their faith, at least six Amish employees have been forced to stop working in surface stone mines in Pennsylvania. We want to put our faith in God, not hard hats,” said Abe Byler, one of the Amish employees who works for Russell Stone Products in rural Grampian, Pa.

Over 10% of the farm deaths in Pennsylvania in 2020 were Anabaptists.

6 thoughts on “Three Workers Dead in Grain Silo, Including a Child. OSHA Can Do Nothing”
  1. “ That none of the funds appropriated under this paragraph [OSHA funds] shall be obligated or expended to prescribe, issue, administer, or enforce any standard, rule, regulation, or order under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 which is applicable” to small family farms. That legislative language seems to leave open the opportunity for OSHA to send them material on safe working in silos.

  2. “In other words, on farms, parents are allowed to kill their children, as long as it’s done in a work context” How much time did you spend growing up on a farm or ranch, sir? And, if you did grow up in such a setting, I bet your parents carried very much about your well-being.
    As you say, the small farm is disappearing from America. I live in an agricultural area, and many of our small farmers/ranchers are struggling. It’s a family affair to run the farm. Can it be dangerous? Yes. But so can growing up in urban areas. Should we fault parents for “subjecting” their children to daily gunfire and drugs in these areas? Of course not…they are just getting by…just like many small farmers/ranchers.
    Do many kids who work on our local farms and ranches get maimed? No. One could argue that families on our farms are some of the more functional families today, instilling values in kids that are missing in urban environments. Set OSHA free on these little farms and they would have a field day with all kinds of jury-rigged stuff. And why? To protect our children? This is the same “savior” language we are hearing from that other party you like so much.
    In the meantime, we have large corporations maiming people every day, with little accountability. These little businesses have everything to lose because they, themselves, are often the ones exposed to hazards. The CEO’s of the big corporations sitting in their ivory towers have little to lose running their plants into the ground because when they fall apart, they will be long gone. Leave the family of this farm alone. Is their a greater punishment than losing three family members? The CSHO needs to be at the factory next door that has had hundreds of recordable injuries over the past decade. I am NOT proposing to leave the little guy alone because of a political agenda. It’s simple common sense considering the resources of OSHA today. But I guess folks in DC don’t have too much of that. If anyone out there is really that concerned about kids needing protection, quit your jobs and become a teacher or counselor. You’ll make MUCH more of a difference than getting on a soapbox about injuries at little farms.

    1. I’m not advocating punishing this family after losing three family members. But we wouldn’t let children go to work in a hazardous factory that their Dad worked in or owned (especially a “small” factory exempt from OSHA inspections, or even consultation), so why do we allow this on farms? The Farm Bureau even had a fit (and managed to kill) protections for children working on farms that weren’t part of the family.

      Plus, even putting aside the child labor issue, OSHA isn’t allowed to respond to complaints, issue citations of even provide compliance assistance on small farms for non-family members. So OSHA can’t even come onto a farm and say, “I’m not going to cite you, but here are some fact sheets and training…”

      1. First, it’s a shame any child loses its life. Tragedies like this have taken place in the past.
        www.whsv.com/content/news/Manure-pit-tragedy-10-years-later-432790933.html
        If OSHA was allowed to come on this PA farm, what would you expect them to do other than cite and/or fine if there was negligence? I’m sure there would not be an exemption for incidents involving family members. Some politicians on the “other side” would have a field day with this.
        If one wants to help people, one needs to meet them where they are at from a cultural perspective. A CSHO showing up on a family’s farm out of the blue is not effective “outreach.” Many folks who live in agricultural areas are rather conservative and suspicious of government. There are other ways to reach small farmers/ranchers. Note in the above article how local FD’s got involved. In rural areas, these are often volunteers departments that include members of the community who have credibility.
        People in agricultural areas have been known to let their children do all kinds of dangerous stuff…ride ATV’s without helmets, ride in the backs of pickup trucks, handle big guns at a young age, etc. Regulation will not “convince” a person who rides around with a “Don’t Tread on Me” license plate, Jordan. It will actually drive them further away. As a safety professional who has worked in rural areas much of my adult life, I have had to learn how to get in the side door when trying to influence people.

  3. Here is some pertinent data.
    marshfieldresearch.org/Media/Default/NFMC/PDFs/ChildAgInjuryFactsheet2020.pdf
    One note…you mentioned individuals kids 19 and under in PA. Individuals who are 18 and 19 are not children in terms of the law, so how many of the ten were under 18?.
    Unlike a factory, a kid working on a farm where he/she lives is potentially a 24/7 job. There is not a strict shift whereby one can easily define “work.” Unlike a factory, in which a supervisor is always there giving direction throughout the day, dad is not always there telling his son what needs to be done every minute.
    In this sense, working on a farm where one lives is not a normal job. And there are numerous activities throughout the day which straddle work and non-work, ie the kid wants to have some fun riding his ATV but makes a stop to conduct some “work” while doing so. Thus, I can see some challenges interpreting injury data on farms.
    That aside, vehicular incidents appear to be the biggest problem. I guess one could debate that kids under a certain age should not be allowed to drive a tractor or ATV, but let’s be real, how far do you think that effort will go? …about as far as the debate for kids and guns, right? Let’s be honest with ourselves. How many of us safety zealots use a robust process with checklists to “qualify” family members on potentially dangerous equipment at our homes? One of OSHA’s greatest electrical experts, a personal friend, had a son electrocuted in a tree in his front yard. So, if we are going to criticize these farmers for being irresponsible employers of their children, we probably need to take a look and the mirror. I think people somehow view “training” at their homes as something less formal than it probably should be.
    Many men see their home as their castle. One day a neighbor was critical of something I was doing on my property. Even though he had a good point, I foolishly took it personally and got defensive. I can understand why small farmers/ranchers would take it as overreach for OSHA to tell them how to do things on their farms. Am not defending the position. My point is simply that it is not that simple. We cannot compare a family farm to a factory.
    The small farmers/ranchers in my area have tight family structures. Could a kid get get killed? Absolutely. Has one in the past decade? No. Of course, that’s anecdotal. My point is that I lose much more sleep over kids doing things other than working on a farm. Some parents let their kids run wild and unsupervised at all hours of the night. Is regulating these bad parents going to change their behavior? No. Similarly, regulating small farmers/ranchers who may allow their kids to do questionable things will have little impact. OSHA would be better suited keeping its focus on areas where it can clearly have an impact and let local entities, ie schools, 4H clubs, etc focus on improving agricultural safety. How ironic I live in a farming area and absolutely nothing concerning ag safety is taught in our local schools.

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