Tragic Grain Silo Deaths Highlight Need for Stronger Workplace Safety Enforcement

grain storage bins

For anybody concerned about worker safety, recent stories by NPR, the Center for Public Integrity, PBS Newshour, and the Kansas City Star are must-reads. These news reports highlight the recent, tragic deaths of two teenagers who were suffocated in grain storage bins while "walking" the grain (breaking it up so it could flow more easily out of the silos).

Unfortunately, these deaths are just the most recent example of a dangerous practice that has killed far too many workers – many of them teenagers with little work experience. Despite an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standard regulating dangers in grain handling facilities, deaths and accidents continue. And when they occur, the penalties paid by companies that violate the law are far too weak to deter future violations. OSHA assesses civil penalties, but those penalties are routinely slashed to a fraction of the initial fines imposed. Infrequently, OSHA may refer a case to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution, but few employers are criminally prosecuted when a worker dies.

This case illustrates a larger point: the penalties for ignoring regulatory standards must be severe and consistently enforced to change employers' behavior. Without serious economic penalties and criminal prosecutions, worker deaths and injuries will continue to be treated as "a cost of doing business."

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