Silos Loom as Death Traps on American Farms

Silos continue to be death traps for farmworkers — with many of the victims teenage boys — who are crushed or asphyxiated by grain in largely preventable accidents.

Comments: 61

  1. There was a vivid scene of this dangerous process in the movie "Witness" with Harrison Ford; since then I've been aware of this hazard. The scene was obviously based on real-world incidents.

  2. This is so sad, and these deaths are NEEDLESS! Agricultural work is some of the most dangerous in the country, and kills an inordinate number of teens and children.

    When are farm groups going to work together, WITH the government, to propose sensible, sane, practicable, effective rules to prevent the horrible and needless deaths of beautiful young men like these?

    Simply denouncing the government for any rules they write -- no matter how "inelegant" -- is NOT A SOLUTION, people.

    Stop putting profits and politics ahead of children's lives, people! Failure to improve your own on-farm practice is wasteful, shameful, stupid, immoral and unjust. It makes me deeply ashamed of American farmers.

  3. I propose that corn farming be abolished, and that the possession of corn be declared a felony. Is this what you really want, or are you trying to make all farms union shops? I suspect that more farm workers are killed by drunk drivers than by silos. Viva la revolucion.

  4. more than 30 years ago, my father worked as a physician serving small farming communities in southeastern michigan; the worst days were when he was called out on site to assist with farming accidents. they inevitably involved silos, or very young children, riding on the backs of their fathers and grandfathers as they plowed...the aftermath always haunted him. it's incredible that after so many years, nothing has changed, and the young are still being victimized!

  5. How about child abuse and neglect in NYC? More children die there than on all American farms combined. Then there are the car wrecks involving drunk drivers. If farmers cannot care for their own children 100% of the time, what makes you think the government can? If anything, more children will be hurt or injured while the farmer is busy filling out federal paper work. Viva la revolucion.

  6. This is why the UFW is such an important addition to farming regulation...

  7. If it weren't for NFW, there would be no crisis. The article is mostly anecdotal, with very little data. Viva la revolucion.

  8. Unfortunately, the same people who denounce regulations as "too much gov't interference," fail to understand the consequences of unregulated free-market economics. Even Adam Smith realized the need for regulations.

    We still have this misty eyed view of small farm life in America, rather than the reality of industrialized farming. In a world where we rely upon good intentions, sadly, owners are looking at the bottom line, and non-farming Americans are complicit in the pursuit of an endless supply of cheap food and fuel.

    For a political party that claims to value life above all, the Republicans (and their Tea Party cousins) are willing to let people die for the sake of corporate profits. But Dems have not been without sin as well. We all need to wake up to the fact that we have been living in a market economy since the 18th century. Regulations are the only way to guarantee safety! And we need to decide how much life is really worth and then put our money where our mouth is (in this case, literally!).

  9. Regulations are the only way to guarantee safety? I suspect that civil suits, combined with enforcement of child abuse and child neglect laws could work. Who will enforce these regulations? How many inspectors will have to be hired to monitor each and every silo? How about just making corn illegal, like opium poppies and marijuana? Let Chinese and African children die in foreign silos. Better yet, remove all taxes on products contain foreign EOH, including beverages, and we can import cheap foreign alcohol, like we currently import "cheap" foreign oil. Viva la revolucion.

  10. Just a thought but perhaps the regulations were written so that they were doomed to fail. The political backlash would almost guarantee it wouldn't be addressed again for quite a while, as stated in the article/video.

  11. If there are any Tea Party/ultra conservative Republicans reading this story please let us know if you are in favor of the Goverment passing laws to lessenthe chance of this happening either by increasing the fines or criminal prosecution. Or are there too much government involvement already and we should we let the private market determine what happens; ie. eventually when enough people gets killed or lose limbs people will wise up and stop working at the silos?

  12. Having "heavy hand of government" preventing us from dying in senseless accidents is a pretty new phenomenon, so the Tea Party definitely won't want any government interference in our right to die in industrial accidents.

    On the other hand, silos themselves date to the late 8th century BC, so one could argue that humans are incapable of learning and, therefore, trying to teach most of us is futile and a waste of money.

  13. Not much of a story.

    Everyone who's ever been around a silo knows this...except perhaps the members of the Tea Party (I don't know if silos had been invented by the late 1700s, which is where the minds of most Tea Party members dwell).

    But we all know the safety is for sissies...and it raises the cost of doing business, which cuts into profits, which are the ONLY thing that matter.

    Ask Mitt Romney.

  14. "Only a relative would give you a job like that," Is what they said when they saw me operating a floor chipper without safety glasses or ear plugs. I worked for years in construction for my dad. He said he could afford to pay me more without workmans comp. insurance. He didn't have any business managing anyone. Family owned farms can't afford to be in business.

  15. It amazes me that the farm families don't want more regulations - state or federal - to prevent more deaths, even if the future deaths might be among their own family members.

    I can understand that the proposed regulation over-reached. Happens all the time. But to be opposed to any regulation?

    Ideology over family. Saving money over family. Wow. There really are two Americas.

    Will they also sign releases saying they won't sue anyone?

  16. A good post, deserving of a response.

    I grew up on a farm very close to Sterling, Michigan. Better off than most of our neighbors, we had a blue-collar used-Chevrolet lifestyle. Most of these folks risk financial ruin at every turn, and feel that they must accept risks to stay afloat.

    Money over family? In a way, yes. They hope that they can somehow balance risks, and often they do. Farmers are far more resourceful as a group than almost anyone. Often they don't succeed and risk prevails: farming is incredibly dangerous. A classmate of mine was killed in a tractor accident.

    So why don't they just leave farming? Many do, and end up joining the ranks of the urban poor. Their land is taken over by corporate operations that are unlikely to have better safety records, and produce the "Frankenfood" that so many urbanists loathe. Others know nothing else. And for almost all farmers, farming is a calling, not just a job or a career. To lose that calling and to lose your land, or even to give it up voluntarily is an enduring trauma.

    I left the farm 45 years ago for many reasons, including the danger. I am now multi-degreed, professionally successful, cultured and all that. I even read the NYR, and no one suspects that I came from a farm. That notwithstanding, I remain in awe of the gap in perception between the two Americas.

  17. To me it sounds like people who wrote the regulations were unwilling to compromise as well. I got into farming as an adult and it already is so frustrating to realize there is so much you can't do, so much that is over-regulated to the point that you feel crippled unless you are running a huge industrial factory operation. I think farmers fear any more regulation and the overzealous attitudes of many regulators is alienating.

  18. If their employers cared for their safety there is a cheap and easy solution. Spend $50 on a climbing harness, $40 on a good rope, and maybe another $5 on some carabiners and an eyelet. They could spring for a self arresting rig but even without that or a guy on belay there would be a life line for the poor kid to grab hold of when the floor gave out.
    ADM and Cargill wouldn't like this because of their scale(which is why they reject any regulations) but the family operations could do this tomorrow.

  19. Too bad our craven politicians have to serve big Agriculture's wishes instead of insuring the safety of citizens. It might cost a buck or two to comply with regulations you know. What's especially galling is that the immense corn production is not needed. Most of the products were invented just to make more money from corn, including the folly of Ethanol.

  20. There are products available that are easy and safe solutions to clogged grain silos that do not require someone to enter the bin: industrial vibrators that attach to silo walls to shake the grain loose, and large "whips" lowered into silos from above that beat the hardened grain off the silo walls. With all the money farmers are raking in on corn harvests, why can't they spend some of that money to save someone's life--one that might belong to their own family?

  21. Just ask the pharmacists at New England Compounding Center what they thought of excessive regulation.
    Then ask their victims, at least the ones that are still alive.

  22. Once again, when we need leadership in a tough fight, Obama runs away.

  23. Present!

  24. you do realize that these are the type of excessive gov't regulation romney and ryan are talking about, don't you?

  25. Dear sf:

    President Obama is wise not to fight the battles that he can't win.

    When conservative Republicans lose a policy fight, they blame liberals. When liberals lose a policy fight, they blame their leaders.

    Have you noticed that Republicans have a majority in the House?

  26. I am a chemical engineer with 30+ years of experience in various process industies. FYI: There are already numerous OSHA statutes against entering confined spaces unless all known hazards have been mititgated. A chemical company that forced workers to enter a confined space (such as a silo) where there is an engulfment hazard (loose material overhead) would be fined severely by OSHA and most likely sued by the victim's family members. These OSHA regulations do not apply to farmers. Farming has proven to be one of the most dangerous professions in America - not only from engulfment hazards but from unguarded machinery, falls, and other hazards that industry has long ago been able to control. I'm not sure what the answer is to prevent these deaths in the future - have OSHA inspectors on tens of thousands of farms? Better education of farmers to the potential hazards? There has to be a way to improve this situation without bankrupting farmers or consumers.

  27. The solution is the elimination of this regulation altogether. This is clearly unnecessary regulaiton. These so-called "workers" need to excercise more caution, not blame employers for their ineptitude.

  28. Cooperative Extension in every state works tremendously on education about this type of farm hazard. The danger of climbing into a grain bin is as well known as that of driving drunk. It's essentially impossible to be unaware at this point. But it is also quite possible to be insufficiently concerned. The culture of agricultural exceptionalism has a significant role in how hazards are addressed.

  29. Yoda, these "so-called workers" the article focuses on are teenagers. You expect them to knowingly defy their more informed employers who are in some cases parents, or relatives. I don't see how you can call this unnecessary regulation. I guess you believe every employer or parent has the right to kill and maim with impunity.

  30. In the early '90s I worked for the Dept. of Labor and Industries, Washington State, which administrates a state program for worker safety. The program is strictly reflective of OSHA rules. Osha developed a rule which was supposed to be adopted by state programs, which we did. I wrote it to fit the state's rule format. The rule prohibited the "walking down of grain." Washington's rule also included back up requirements for protection against engulfment by requiring the use of restraint equipment.

    Since Michigan has a state safety and health compliance program I would assume it also was required to adopt this requirement also. The politics of OSHA and state programs are quirky so maybe Michigan was not required to include this rule if they were not originally involved with agricultural worker safety. But if Michigan has a state program and it covers agricultural safety then OSHA would have required this adoption of the grain standard. Now enforcement is another issue entirely. Michigan is quite weak in enforcement of worker safety rules, having way fewer compliance officers in the field per capita than does Washington State.

  31. I was born and raised on a farm in Illinois 60 years ago, and have know people who were severally injured or killed in farm accidents. I worked in all kinds of farm situations as a teenager until I went in the service at 19, and the truth be told accidents happen because people try to do to much to fast, and don't plan out what they are doing. Accidents like getting in a combine or a cornpicker because they didn't turn it off before trying to clean it, getting into a PTO because it wasn't protected, or shutoff before they tried to climb over it, or climbing over it, instead of going around, etc,etc.

    In grain bins, most of the farmers I worked for used a rope and harness if someone got in the grain bin. It was then tied off, so if the grain did cave, we wouldn't go in with it. What some may not realize is that grain is somewhat like quicksand, and as you start going down, if you panic, the more you move, the move you go down. I have experienced this while filling wagons and trucks. The best thing to do is just go limp, and wait for someone to help you out, because the more you move the more you sink.

    While there are many accidents on farms, most of them are avoidable. People getting run over, because the driver didn't make sure he knew where everyone was at Little kids being where they shouldn't be. Covers / protection devises not properly installed because some one was in to big of a hurry.

    A little common sense, and safety saves lives, and prevents injuries.

  32. These stories are heartwrenching. Children haven't a clue to the dangers involved. Use the schools to make the kids aware of these dangers. The local community where I live recently allowed bow hunting within the city limits. I took it upon myself to call the schools and asked them to remind the children to stay out of wooded areas and off of private property during hunting season. Kids, by nature, will cut through yards, and if you don't remind them, it's just an accident waiting to happen.

  33. "Silos Loom as Death Traps on American Farms"

    Has always been true, but I'm not sure what can be done that will work and be accepted on family-owned farms.

    Even after seat belts were installed, there still were a lot of deaths in auto accidents until people actually started belting up. But the really big decline in auto deaths occurred after automatically activated air bags were installed. Then the redesign of many cars' structure along with the installation of even more air bags cut it down further. Cost of cars up, but deaths and critical injuries down - I think it was worth it, but not sure what others believe.

  34. I grew up on a dairy farm with two 90 ft. silos we filled every fall. We were always aware of the dangers but accepted no other way to do the job. The dangers are all around an agriculture business. Isnt this ones of those times the Government should provide rules and regulations in the name of safety, we accept their over site with respect to health inspections.

  35. Apparently for many employers in the agricultural business losing a farm worker, whether a minor or not, is just one of the calculated risk of doing business equivalent to the loss of a hog, or cow, or horse. To reduce the number of such horrific and preventable silo accidents, the consequent fiscal penalty for each occurrence should be severe, certainly much greater than any benefit that might be realized if the dangerous task were successfully completed. If you can’t hit the employer in the heart then hit them in their wallet.

    It is keenly disappointing that Obama/White House are apparent complicit in failing to order the Labor Department vigorously enforce rules covering such silo accidents. Perhaps it is an obvious tradeoff of principles for the votes made to help ensure an Obama reelection and election of Democrat legislators. Obama cannot address such issues if he is only citizen Obama and it is unlikely that this matter would ever concern President Romney.

  36. We've been taught for 30 years that we should trade safety for money. At least the 99% should. The 1% would never do that, of course, but they're happy to have everybody else do that, because its good for them.

    And they're really good at selling policy, calling it "freedom" and "growth." But in reality its just them exercising economic leverage, forcing people to make a tradeoff they could never conceive of making.

    Welcome to neo-feudalism.

  37. You would think that building codes (requiring the automation mentioned by others) would be a way to address this issue. That the structure itself could be deemed not to code and therefore unusable if it didn't have the automation in place to make it safe.

  38. Red States feel that regulations are a virus - this is the price society pays for that belief.

  39. On the one hand, Mitt Romney and the Tea Party want to remove the 'heavy hand of government" that might impede the flow of profits into corporate coffers by protecting lives.

    On the other hand, silos have been around since about 8th century B.C., so it might be a complete waste of time and money to try and regulate them.

    Maybe Mitt and his Social Darwinists are right on this one.

  40. I agree, we have always accepted some of our youths dying for cheap grain, why stop now. Look at it like sacrificing boys to the generous grain god and it almost becomes an honour, a rite of passage for these young men coming of age, or heroically giving their lives.

    On a different note, it appears you can't pin this on a particular party, neither appears to have the political will to do what both know is right. Is politics to blame, or the collective greed of society demanding cheap grain and showing the willingness to look the other way if someone loses their child?

  41. reading all the comments from people never been in a bin made me laugh, I run the operations manager for a grain company that owns six grain elevator sites,and have been in and worked in grain bins since 1971,, there are enough laws on the books now, the two stories shared one common problem, someone opened the bottom door to allow corn or beans to flow out the bin , just like the water going down the drain taking everything with it. osha mandates that these devices be locked out when people are in the bin. and I do not know any family farm that is not incorporated, but excempts these farms with 10 employees or less, no real family farm own a 90 ft bin 250,000 bush that 7.5 million $ of corn

  42. My father told me his story about being in a silo as a teenager as the corn was coming in. It started coming in faster than he could handle, and he almost died. At first the farmer could no heard him when he yelled for help. Eventually the farmer checked inside, and my father lived to tell the story.. I have not completed reading the entire article, so maybe this solution is already in place: a walkie talkie or equivalent.

  43. Let's see... the year 2010 there were 30,000 gun related deaths and the politicians did absolutely nothing. So did you really expect in an election year that they would worry about the twenty-odd silo related deaths in 2010 or whatever the count will be in any year? Cowards one and all.

  44. Would something like those airbags for people in avalanches work?

  45. There is already sufficiently helpful safety equipment. The issue is that farmers and grain silo / grain bin operators don't bother to use it or even buy it.

    They'll send little kids - 14 years old, are you kidding me? - into extremely dangerous situations without any equipment or bothering to take the simplest, most common-sense precautions like turning off power equipment when there are people in the silo.

    Basically, the owners/operators are idiots and if not idiots, they are extremely foolhardy. Just because they've "always done it this way," they think it will never end in tragedy. And then it does.

    I've lost high school friends in accidents like these. Stupid, awful accidents.

    The problem isn't that people don't know how to prevent these things. The issue is that the idiots in charge don't even try. And the kids don't know any better. They get sent in because they are smaller than adults. They fit through access hatches. And because grown men don't want to do the dirty work.

  46. Each day I read of implementing a regulation because someone somewhere suffered an accident.

    Most of what I know about safety I learned on farms before regulations.

    Safety is better learned than regulated.

  47. Republican charges that it was choking the economy with expensive regulations, pulled back the proposed rules this year in the face of furious farm-state objections.

    typical republicans both those that are elected and those that elect them.

  48. This is absolutely of the most painful articles I've read here in a long time. All I could picture the entire time reading were young kids "drowning" in corn...what an awful, painful way to die. So very, very sad.

  49. The victims, and NYT readers, deserve better. We're all hayseeds here in the Midwest? The overly-colloquial "...had to be busted up" is patronizing. Sensitive, too, to point out what a poor student the victim was. And silos aren't cement (a binding component) but rather concrete. Tone and editing not NYT-worthy.

  50. Read the article...OSHA threw in everything and the kitchen sink, They do this with EVERY rule making proposal so it becomes impossible to defend the important rules. It is absurd that pencil headed paper pushers can squander an opportunity to actually save lives because they have a kingdom complex. Years ago I defended I am appalled at them. After 40 years as an industrial electrician I have had my FILL.

  51. If, sadly, around 20-25 people die annually in these accidents, then how many of those would be prevented by a regulation? My guess is around 0.00.

    But if the money were spent on education, there might actually be a good chance of impact.

    The government should be in the role of empowering people through education, not infantalizing them through rules that no one follows, that cannot be enforced, and that cost a ton of money..

  52. Obama says play it safe; GOP says profits are more important; farm folk, whose children die for the profits, side with the GOP. Lesson to be learned: back off, let the elevators and private graneries bury kids in grain until the farm mothers get tired of burying their children. If they can take it why shoud outsiders care?

  53. Then there is the one about the city slicker who wandered into a silo looking for a corner to urinate in and walked himself to death. Workplace safety, especially the tragic accidents described in the article, should be resolved by civil lawsuits. Corporations, not being human, understand only a severe hit in the wallet. Viva la revolucion.

  54. I'm sympathetic to folks who say business is over-regulated - that common sense should prevail, and that new regulations are often knee jerk reactions to tragedies like the ones described in this article.

    How's this for a simpler, more common sense approach to more regulations -- business will be held criminally and civilly responsible when negligence results in an accident. Hold the business owner or the CEO of the corporation personally responsible in a criminal action. Obviously that is not happening now. If it was, I guarantee that every work place in America would be safer overnight - without more regulation.

    For all their talk of taking personal responsibility, Republicans actively pursue less regulation AND less accountability. Their nationwide objective seems to rewrite state and federal laws so that they protect the interests of corporations and weaken the ability of individuals to sue them - effectively eliminating any meaningful punishment.

  55. Try rereading this article and substitute the word "factory" for farm. How is it possible that commercial enterprises that more environmentally destructive and cause more injuries and death than any existing large scale industry have an exemption that allows children to be killed at rates that are unimaginable in any other context.

    Why is it okay to allow one's children to be placed in life threatening situations just because its good for business?

  56. As a kid growing up in NYC, I always had dreams of living in the country and working on a farm. In my late teens and early twenties, I got the chance to work on cattle and dairy farms. It was lots of heavy labor, and long hours; I was outside in all kinds of weather, frequently used heavy machinery, and had to manage large animals on a daily basis. The pay wasn't much, probably below minimum wage and no benefits. I enjoyed it very much.
    One day in July of 1971, I was working on a family farm in Michigan when the rotating chain saw, which loosens the stored feed in the silo and feeds it onto the conveyor, jammed and snapped. The dairy cows were hungry and restless, this was a major crisis and the farmer said it was up to me and another young laborer to deal with it. We spent almost 18 hours on our backs, chipping densely packed, fermenting milo away from the chainsaw, breathing fumes, creating a steaming hot cave at the bottom of the silo, with many tons of unsupported silage above our heads, so that the chain could be replaced and the cows fed.
    The farmer said it wasn't risky, but he didn't pay us overtime, he didn't give us the next day off, and he didn't crawl into that hole with us.
    I ilt out for the nearest town, and have never worked another day on any farm.
    Nothing has changed in 40 years and that's inexcusable.

  57. I understand not wanting a whole raft of new regulation, but surely it's not too terribly expensive to require a climbing harness, a rope and a pulley? This is simple stuff, and cheap.

  58. These are not silos; they are grain storage bins. Silos are for storing silage, as in green fodder, and are not used for grain storage.

  59. This is only one example of multiple violations of safety across the country. I have observed many of them. I propose that all children of members of congress be required to work a year at minimum wage jobs without regard for special safety regulations. That might give our legislators some sense of concern -- which they certainly do not have now.

  60. Farm work has always been dangerous even under the best conditions. My wife's family has dairy farmers and broken toes from cows stepping on them are not uncommon as are kicks from annoyed cows. Almost every task in farming is dangerous. A great Grandfather David De Marest was killed at 40 when a tree he was cutting down fell on him. His brother was killed by a horse drawn wagon. Injuey and death come without warning performing mundane routine tasks and nothing is going to change that.

  61. Following basic well-known safety procedures does "change that."