Email this article to a friend

Working In These Times

Monday, Dec 19, 2011, 9:38 am

Keeping Kids Out of Silo Deathtraps: Labor Dept. on Verge of Rule Change

BY Mike Elk

OSHA fined a company after two of its employees died on the job at a corn facility in Mt. Carroll, Ill., in July 2010.   (Photo from Flickr user Dalton Rowe, Creative Commons)

When it's humid during the summer, corn in storage will often get so caked together that it won't fall to the bottom of silos. When this happens, silo operators will sometimes hire teenagers to come in for a day and jump around on the corn in order to break it up and get it moving downward. But sometimes the teenagers they hire never leave the silo alive.

In July 2010, three teenagers were jumping on the grain stacks—or, as they say, “walking down the corn”— in a silo bin in Mt. Carroll, Ill., when the stacks began to sink rapidly. All three quickly found themselves trapped in a 30-foot deep stack of corn. Two teenagers, Wyatt Whitebread, 14, and Alex Pacas, 19, suffocated to death and another worker, aged 20, was badly injured in the accident.

“These deaths were entirely preventable. First off, you don’t hire a child aged 14 to do something like this. Second, you use safety equipment like harnesses and follow the safety standards to prevent people from getting trapped in the corn,” says Justin Feldman, Public Citizen’s worker health and safety advocate.

The Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited the company, Haasbach, which has since closed down the corn facility, for 12 willful, 12 serious and one other-than-serious violation of worker safety laws. Earlier this month, OSHA and the company reached a settlement in which the company agreed to pay the federal agency $200,000 in fines. Also, since the 14-year-old child killed in the accident was legally barred from doing this type of work, the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division also fined the company $68,125 for violating child labor laws.

"This tragedy has had a profound effect on the community of Mt. Carroll and the grain industry nationwide," said David Michaels, assistant secretary of Labor for OSHA. "We hope that the deaths of these two young men send a profound and unmistakable message throughout the grain industry that loss of life can and must be prevented."

The Department of Labor is currently in the process of publishing a final rule that would prohibit workers under the age of 18 from working in a variety of dangerous farm occupations. Research shows that 15-year-olds working in agriculture are six times as likely to be killed in accidents as 15-year-olds working in other industries.

As In These Times previously covered, the rule was held up for nine months because of what critics said were unnecessary delays. But according to Feldman, public safety advocates are confident the rules will be published in the next few months. They say that child labor laws in some ways are better at preventing workplace safety violations than regular workplace safety laws.  

“The penalties for child labor violations have much more teeth than penalties for safety violations. Any product you make with child labor is hot. The Department of Labor can get it impounded, and a company can’t sell it," says Justin Feldman. “In my opinion, if a company is found to have committed serious willful violations of workplace safety laws, than those products should be impounded as well."

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

View Comments