drowning in corn, buried in grain
December 18, 2014 11:13 AM   Subscribe

drowning in corn - the story of one teenager's near-death experience inside the grain bin that killed his friends

npr has a series on grain entrapment (wiki): Buried in Grain alongside a database of grain entrapment deaths including teenagers as young as 13.

posted by and they trembled before her fury (88 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
nightmare-inducing. It's shocking there's no safety requirement to wear a harness and a rope at least. It's basically a huge silo of quicksand that they send people into.
posted by GuyZero at 11:19 AM on December 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


This case report gives a detailed medical description of a similar case; horrifying. I sometimes trot it out to show residents and others that people tolerate extreme levels of CO2 in their blood if they are healthy. The level quoted in my linked article, 501 mmHG, compared to normal, which the body usually regulates very tightly near 40 mmHg.
posted by TedW at 11:30 AM on December 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


GuyZero, there ARE safety requirements for harness systems. They are routinely ignored because no operator is ever held responsible for the deaths of the rural teenaged boys or immigrants who die in these silos.

The companies know the rules. They choose, over and over, to disobey them -- and not just some of them, ALL of them, down to hiring kids too young to legally be employed in this state and running mechanical equipment while PEOPLE are in the machine parts. OSHA doesn't have adequate budget for these farm inspections - that's on purpose thanks to Congress - but they always back down AFTER an incident too. State and local officials aren't any better. And the operators of most of these silos should flat-out be in jail.

There's zero accountability. And so this will continue to be an every-summer story.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:31 AM on December 18, 2014 [86 favorites]


There is no way anyone should be doing that sort of work with anything less than a Level 1 SPRAT certification. This would require supervision buy a Level 2 technician. This should be viewed exclusively as rope access work since the grain is not a safe working surface.
posted by MrBobaFett at 11:31 AM on December 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


An attorney for Haasbach LLC says no one associated with the company will comment because of pending wrongful-death and injury lawsuits filed by the Whitebreads, Annette Pacas and Will Piper.

Since "thou shall not murder" doesn't cut it anymore.
Sue these assholes until they don't have a GODDAMN THING LEFT, go after their shareholders, seize their assets using RICO, use the assets to make ads in every financial paper about what happens to companies that do this and those who invest in them, until people get the message that negligently killing workers for a few extra bucks profit AINT WORTH IT.
posted by lalochezia at 11:44 AM on December 18, 2014 [8 favorites]


Companies will always choose money over health and safety. If a fine (which is reduced by the party bringing the suit in the first place) is always reduced, what chance to workers have for safe conditions? If OSHA had teeth, it might help some, but just slapping the wrists of those companies actively killing people to squeeze out a few more dollars just adds insult to injury (and death).
posted by xingcat at 11:46 AM on December 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


I'll take "Horrible Ways to Die" for $800, Alex.
posted by localroger at 11:47 AM on December 18, 2014


I know a guy who went to our church back in the 90s. Working in a gravel pit. There was some sort of blockage in the machine that, I guess, crushed rock into gravel? He went up and stomped his foot on it, and ... yeah.

"Horrible Ways to Die", indeed.
posted by symbioid at 11:56 AM on December 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


I want to know the name of the guy who basically ordered these kids to their death. We can discuss corporate malfeasance and wrongful death lawsuits and liability all day long, but in the end, it was one person-one boss-who told his employees to go do the job that killed them. Given that he was the on-site boss and was presumably quite aware of the dangers involved, it strikes me that he, at the very least, should have been prosecuted. If not, why not?
posted by Chrischris at 11:57 AM on December 18, 2014 [17 favorites]


Yeah, fuck calling this an "accident" in the first place. This is a predictable result of inadequate workplace safety. The bosses are responsible, not blind chance.
posted by RogerB at 11:59 AM on December 18, 2014 [19 favorites]


> The mischievous and popular 14-year-old had been excited about his first real job

Welcome to capitalism. My introduction was a golf course driving range job where I was sent out in a cart without a protective cage one day when the regular cart broke down. I protested that it was dangerous, but I was about the same age and didn't know my rights. There was a tournament on that day and the course would have been out a lot of money if they'd closed the range. Fortunately I didn't get hurt, but if I had been...well, that's the price of doing business, I guess.
posted by The Card Cheat at 12:01 PM on December 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


glad to see this follow-up story in the sidebar there...http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2014/02/07/273015336/jury-awards-nearly-17-million-in-grain-bin-deaths, hopefully there isn't another one somewhere that says the ruling was overturned later.
posted by th3ph17 at 12:08 PM on December 18, 2014 [5 favorites]


The company paid ~$8 million to the Pacas family and to the Whitebread family and about 1 million to Will this year in either a civil settlement or ruling.

I would like to see a mechanical or reliable electronic connection between the conveyors and some kind of lock at the top of the silo. This is similar to what's used in other industries where a remote operator can start a machine and kill someone due to miscommunication.
posted by michaelh at 12:09 PM on December 18, 2014 [4 favorites]


I don't really want to read the article (it just sounds too awful), but could someone explain the physics of this? Besides using ropes and pulleys, could this be prevented simply by wearing something like shoes with large flat surfaces that provide larger surface area?

I tried searching for "corn silo physics", but didn't find anything. I found a page on the physics of quicksand) but that page surprised me by basically saying that there is no such thing as naturally occurring quicksand that's actually dangerous to humans because we would float in it.
posted by HappyEngineer at 12:16 PM on December 18, 2014


HappyEngineer, snowshoes would give you a little more reaction time as a small valley grows under your feet, but when the conveyors pull down the corn from the bottom, pretty quickly it's going to start falling in from the sides onto your wide shoes. Then your feet are stuck because you can't pull them out anymore.
posted by michaelh at 12:19 PM on December 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


It's interesting how little mention the supervisor gets in both of these stories.

He effectively killed them.

1. Schaffner instructs the boys to walk the corn
2. Provides no training
3. Provides no safety equipment
4. Against regulations, Schaffner starts the conveyor on the open drain hole
5. Then Schaffner opened a second drain hole in the bottom of the bin, according to Piper and the account in Schaffner's Labor Department deposition. Beneath the drain holes, a conveyor belt carried the corn away. The flowing corn inside the bin formed a second cone near the boys.

The very definition of willful disregard for safety, regulations, and all common sense.

Criminal negligence. Wrongful death. Corporate manslaughter.
posted by ...possums at 12:22 PM on December 18, 2014 [36 favorites]


I believe I first heard about this in a Harper's Magazine article. I recall the name of the job, "walking down the grain." The only hit I found for that is here, but TFA stories correspond with what I recall from years ago (i.e. no criminal prosecution, fines reduced or eliminated, business as usual).
posted by spacewrench at 12:24 PM on December 18, 2014


A couple paragraphs in, I was thinking "Why don't they mandate harnesses? That seems like a cheap and easy solution." Reading further, it became clear that they did, and businesses ignore it, because.... Christ, I can't even tell why.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 12:26 PM on December 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


I don't really want to read the article (it just sounds too awful)

Indeed, it explains in fairly gruesome detail the mechanics of corn entrapment and how it asphyxiates and kills. Reader be warned.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 12:26 PM on December 18, 2014


Born in corn town Iowa, I'd heard of cases of this all through my childhood. As I recall however, an equally common path to death or injury in a grain bin was grain dust explosion.

As you may or may not know, any type of dust, regardless of whether it's the dust of a combustable material, will detonate at a very specific concentration in air. Grain bins are dusty places, and if a vent is open to let in fresh oxygen while an ignition source is active, it explodes. This ignition source is often a person. This happened at least twice in my tiny town while I was a child.

So, add that to the new nightmare fuel that this post has brought you.
posted by rlk at 12:27 PM on December 18, 2014 [15 favorites]


As you may or may not know, any type of dust, regardless of whether it's the dust of a combustable material...

It does have to be something that will burn, but things that are not very easy to ignite become explosive when ground to dust and suspended in air. When we were kids we would blow flour out of a straw into a coffee can with a candle in it to create such an explosion. Sugar dust can be quite dangerous, too. Lots of videos out there.
posted by TedW at 12:34 PM on December 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


in the end, it was one person-one boss-who told his employees to go do the job that killed them. Given that he was the on-site boss and was presumably quite aware of the dangers involved, it strikes me that he, at the very least, should have been prosecuted. If not, why not?

"Lisa Jones, the family friend who drove Whitebread home the night before he died, says people in Mount Carroll have been forgiving, at least when it comes to Matt Schaffner, the Haasbach supervisor who was working with the boys. Jones says she and her family are close friends with the families of the Mount Carroll victims and the Schaffners. "It's just been a devastating thing for their family and for Matt," she says. "He's the most gentle, kind person. He would die a million deaths to save either of those boys."
posted by gottabefunky at 12:35 PM on December 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


Does the supervisor, Schaffner, ask his underage child to stick her hand in the meat grinder while he turns the handle?
posted by ...possums at 12:36 PM on December 18, 2014 [4 favorites]


It took an hour to extract enough corn from the tube to uncover Pacas' face. Piper was trapped for a couple more hours, as he remembers it, almost face to face with his dead friend...When Pacas' body was finally exposed, Piper was told to lean in and hug him so rescuers could vacuum out the corn behind Piper...He continued to hug his lifeless friend as rescuers extracted the corn.

Fuck me.

(Weird how this gets no mention in the Atlantic piece.)
posted by gottabefunky at 12:37 PM on December 18, 2014 [14 favorites]


It's not really a good article, in general. The subject is interesting, though.
posted by michaelh at 12:40 PM on December 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


TedW: It does have to be something that will burn, but things that are not very easy to ignite become explosive when ground to dust and suspended in air.
Yup, I had roommates who regularly used my tools in my basement, which was ok up until the day I found out they were using the circ saw and power sander in the room right next to the gas furnace. I tried to explain how full-body 2nd-degree burns could result, but got an eyeroll from them, "Yeah, we'll be careful...". So, I moved those tools into a locked cabinet.

Which places me about a million, zillion miles in morality above the grain elevator owners and supervisors. Geesh.

The reason safety rules are so mind-numbingly overprotective is because workers easily become so mind-numb during their jobs - and because many managers will gladly cut any safety corners they can get away with.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:43 PM on December 18, 2014 [17 favorites]


Moving on, Piper says, requires a proper headstone for Pacas, the closest friend he ever had. Annette Pacas says she can't afford one, so Piper wants to try to raise the money.
Jesus fuck.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 12:45 PM on December 18, 2014 [22 favorites]


Yet another reason we need legal ways to jail corporate entities for criminal decisions. Jailing a supervisor wouldn't change anything.
posted by benzenedream at 12:48 PM on December 18, 2014 [10 favorites]


BTW, I don't mean to draw a direct parallel between my driving range anecdote above and this situation, which is infinitely worse; as far as I can tell the yearly number of driving range employee deaths stands at zero. But it's the same idea; my boss weighed the very real risk of my being injured against the revenue that would have been lost if we'd closed the range and decided it was worth it.
posted by The Card Cheat at 12:48 PM on December 18, 2014 [4 favorites]


in the end, it was one person-one boss-who told his employees to go do the job that killed them. Given that he was the on-site boss and was presumably quite aware of the dangers involved, it strikes me that he, at the very least, should have been prosecuted. If not, why not?

I'm sure a few stalwart, free-market crusaders might opine that the employees freely chose to follow orders rather than quit and get another job.

See, it all comes down to personal responsibility. "Comes down" as in "The people on the bottom rung are responsible".
posted by Thorzdad at 12:54 PM on December 18, 2014 [8 favorites]


Born in corn town Iowa, I'd heard of cases of this all through my childhood. As I recall however, an equally common path to death or injury in a grain bin was grain dust explosion.
Yes, this happened to one of my maternal uncles. He survived the explosion but with lifelong disabilities. Silos are dangerous places and poor safety practices are distressingly common.
posted by Nerd of the North at 12:57 PM on December 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


"He's the most gentle, kind person. He would die a million deaths to save either of those boys.
Fuck that noise. I'm not interested in his remorsefulness. This fucker killed a couple of kids. He ought to be in jail.
posted by Chrischris at 12:58 PM on December 18, 2014 [10 favorites]


As an aside, very glad to see the reaction here so far has been universally one of horror and/or sympathy. I no longer take it for granted that someone won't chime in with "More safety regulation sounds great, but who's going to be willing to pay the extra penny that it'll add to the price of corn? You? I don't think so.." because I've actually seen people seriously put forth that kind of argument (and over that magnitude of minor price increase.)
posted by Nerd of the North at 1:02 PM on December 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


Wow, reminds me of this YA book I read almost twenty years ago called Rimwalkers and I think the little sister in it almost died that way.
posted by discopolo at 1:13 PM on December 18, 2014


This boils down to macho "fuck ya'll city boys and your safety regulations" bullshit. We were just talking recently about how Mike Rowe likes to besmirch OSHA regs and such because grunts know better. They often don't, they often don't understand probability and margin of error and can't assess risks that they take often due to a misguided sense of "personal responsibility."

At my first job I could only get more than 30 hours a week by operating equipment I was too young to operate. They didn't teach jack about knife safety either. People would fuck themselves up cutting tomatoes and go to the hospital as a result.

And then my idiot estranged brother in law. Too stupid to understand why truckers are supposed to sleep. So stupid he lost multiple jobs because of it and thought the answer was swindling friends and neighbors to start his own failure of a trucking company. Too stupid to ever wear a respirator when doing dusty work of any kind. People brag about hating respirators all of the time. I wonder how many mesothelioma victims thought they were cool by avoiding protective equipment. Most of them are not personally responsible because their employers didn't provide safety equipment but even if they do, if your job is blue collar there's a good chance you'll be branded a sissy for bringing up safety concerns and using the gear provided.
posted by aydeejones at 1:14 PM on December 18, 2014 [25 favorites]


One of my first jobs was in a pizza place made sandwiches as well. The big circular industrial electric slicer they used for cutting meat and cheese was missing the safety guard, so you just had to be careful not to keep slicing the hunk of cheese or meat past a certain point. There was never any move to replace or repair the machine. Cause owners don't care. That's just how it goes.
posted by freecellwizard at 1:18 PM on December 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


The new gendered insult for men who stand out for wearing safety gear is "pussy" actually. You see it in people who work high rise construction down to the cut who cuts his finger tips off because he thinks he's Gordon Ramsay and his parents taught him to use his fingertips as a guide and to inch the knife towards them like a crazy person at rapid speed. Whoops. They had us 16-17 year olds dicing peppers for over a year in a kids pizza restaurant because they were too cheap to buy diced peppers (it's chuck e cheese FFS) and didn't want to fix the mechanical dicing machine that would not require hundreds of super dull or super sharp strokes (depending on which knife you could find) to get through the day.
posted by aydeejones at 1:19 PM on December 18, 2014


Is it possible to mandate that silos be studded with floor length chains every four square feet? Or some other in-built safety feature (preferably something that could be added to existing equipment) that cannot be forgotten, left in a locker, or macho-cultured onto a seat back? Something where the lack of it on visual inspection results in a work stop order of some kind?
posted by Slackermagee at 1:25 PM on December 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


Fuck capitalism.
posted by PMdixon at 1:26 PM on December 18, 2014 [7 favorites]


No idea what the numbers are, and I doubt anyone knows, but if you want to look at corporate manslaughter, look to the roads.

It's not just the long shifts and tired workers coming home, it's sales people trying to meet unrealistic quotas, service engineers trying to support areas that are too large, any employee that's encouraged to travel, work, and then travel back. Corporate culture in many places encourages someone who drives eight hours, does a full day's work, gets three hours sleep and then drive back again. People are proud of doing it.

Some of the big companies I've worked for have taken it more seriously than others (although they all offer the same lip service), but yeah. A roadside accident isn't as horrific as drowning in corn, but the numbers will dwarf those deaths, will include innocent bystanders, and will not be measured by anyone.
posted by YAMWAK at 1:26 PM on December 18, 2014 [11 favorites]


The new gendered insult for men who stand out for wearing safety gear is "pussy" actually.

It's not new - as an insult, it dates to the 1600s. And it is not gendered, either - the original meaning referred to being timid like a cat. Some argue that it is a shortened version of pusillanimous - to be timid or scared.

The word didn't pick up the feminine definition until the late 1800s or early 1900s, anyway.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 1:37 PM on December 18, 2014 [7 favorites]


You can move out of a small Midwestern town you grew up in for the big city (or at least always the no silo area) and 20+ years later still have occasional nightmares about silos and drowning in corn even if it's something you never actually did in your youth. Ask me how I know.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 1:41 PM on December 18, 2014 [9 favorites]


Wow, what weird writing:
“There are some 45,000 items in the average American supermarket and more than a quarter of them now contain corn,” writes Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
Each day, Will’s hands ached as he sliced slabs of corn-fed beef and chicken while surrounded by aisles and aisles of corn-based and corn-enhanced food…
Bin number nine was 118 feet in diameter and about as tall as eight grown men stacked one-by-one atop each other’s shoulders.
From close up, the kernels were crumbled from recent rains, greenish and moldy, like decaying teeth.
posted by smammy at 1:41 PM on December 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


Some of it was adapted from a book written about the incident, iirc. There's an amazon link at the bottom of the page. So it has that added drama feeling, I guess.
posted by poffin boffin at 1:47 PM on December 18, 2014


Brings back memories of the movie "Witness".
posted by Melismata at 1:49 PM on December 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


I grew up working small farms. The uncle of a kid I knew died this way and the way that death seemed to my 8 year old imagination has never left me. I've worked at the bottom end of silos a few times, but fuck no would I ever step in the top of one, even when it wasn't operating.
posted by 256 at 1:53 PM on December 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


drowning by grain entrapment sounds extremely terrifying.

wow.

did not expect this.
posted by entropone at 1:58 PM on December 18, 2014


I'm sure a few stalwart, free-market crusaders might opine that the employees freely chose to follow orders rather than quit and get another job.

See, it all comes down to personal responsibility. "Comes down" as in "The people on the bottom rung are responsible".


From the second link:
CGB and its employees are also named in wrongful-death and injury lawsuits. The company claims in legal filings that the newly hired and inexperienced victims of the Mount Carroll accident were partially responsible for their own entrapment.
"Newly hired and inexperienced", not to mention that one of them was too young to drink, drive, vote or sign a contract, but apparently was considered mature enough to decide whether he should risk his own life. I imagine those legal filings are like salt in the wounds of the grieving families.
posted by ogooglebar at 1:59 PM on December 18, 2014 [5 favorites]


Sorry, I realize "pussy" has been around for a long time as someone who was in high school in 1993 when it really picked up in my life. I said "sissy" earlier but it lost its luster in the 80s it would seem, because I remember hearing it a lot and then poof.
posted by aydeejones at 2:09 PM on December 18, 2014


The word didn't pick up the feminine definition until the late 1800s or early 1900s, anyway.

So it's had a gendered connotation for over a hundred years then? It's a gendered slur.
posted by Squeak Attack at 2:13 PM on December 18, 2014 [19 favorites]


> At my first job I could only get more than 30 hours a week by operating equipment I was too young to operate.

After I'd worked a couple of years at my aforementioned driving range job I graduated to a better-paid gig out on the actual golf course. One morning the fuckup assistant greenskeeper (who, in hindsight, was probably drunk) handed me a chainsaw, a piece of equipment I'd never even held let alone used, and said "You know that tree that fell down on 16? Go chop it up into pieces small enough to be lifted into the truck." That was the only time I flat-out refused to do something at work because it wasn't safe. When the greenskeeper found out he wanted to fire the fuckup, but he was the general manager's brother.
posted by The Card Cheat at 2:15 PM on December 18, 2014


C'mon bleedin heart mefites. If you all had your way we would wind up paying $2.47 for a box of corn flakes instead of $2.46.
posted by notreally at 2:18 PM on December 18, 2014 [8 favorites]


The price of corn is determine by markets, not by its cost of production. I know people are joking, but the only people who pay for improved safety are the workers who would have to pay for the equipment. The entire reason they avoid that cost is because they can't pass it on to consumers. Corn farmers and processors don't care how much you pay for cornflakes.
posted by GuyZero at 2:22 PM on December 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


I said "sissy" earlier but it lost its luster in the 80s it would seem, because I remember hearing it a lot and then poof.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 2:22 PM on December 18, 2014 [4 favorites]


the only people who pay for improved safety are the workers who would have to pay for the equipment

The workers? Not the company?
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 2:23 PM on December 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


It's not new - as an insult, it dates to the 1600s. And it is not gendered, either - the original meaning referred to being timid like a cat. Some argue that it is a shortened version of pusillanimous - to be timid or scared.

What? No. It means vagina. When a man calls another man a pussy, he is saying that man either has or is a vagina. It is an insult to his masculinity by directly comparing him to or calling him a woman.

It is explicitly gendered. The entire point is that it is gendered. It wouldn't be an insult if it was not gendered.
posted by billybunny at 2:27 PM on December 18, 2014 [18 favorites]


Born in corn town Iowa, I'd heard of cases of this all through my childhood. As I recall however, an equally common path to death or injury in a grain bin was grain dust explosion.

A grain elevator exploded a couple blocks away from my house a few years back. Shook the whole neighbourhood, blew the side out of one of the concrete silos. I see there's now a condo building a few feet away from the silo that blew. Lovely.
posted by Sys Rq at 2:30 PM on December 18, 2014


And it is not gendered, either - the original meaning referred to being timid like a cat

Beware the etymological fallacy.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 2:36 PM on December 18, 2014 [10 favorites]


It is explicitly gendered. The entire point is that it is gendered. It wouldn't be an insult if it was not gendered.

It has BECOME clearly gendered, and arguably more impactful (to certain groups) as a result, but you're way overboard in saying that it wouldn't be an insult if it weren't gendered.

It was NOT a gendered insult for well nigh 300 years, and became a gendered insult in the last 100. That doesn't take away from its gendered use currently, but for crying out loud, you're acting like sexist insults are the only thing going, and your blinkered sense of history is showing.
posted by chimaera at 2:38 PM on December 18, 2014 [5 favorites]


In most work places I see people making callous decisions like this, health code violations- I notice these things because I have done so much research into health and occupational hazards and I have trained myself to stop agreeing with fatigue and exhaustion and to find these things wrong.

Many people who make these decisions are literally fatigued and overworked out their gourds and those at the bottom rung have very little power. However somewhere along the way, people who are making CHOICES to overwork themselves for profit- and to make others suffer the consequences of their callous behavior that they justify with "but I'm tired" or "but I need money".

To me a lot of companies run themselves on the assumption they can simply fail to address systemic design problems that need to be addressed and simply let the resulting chaos/danger exist- for the people at the very top there is no problem for them.

This is heinous and horrific. While I don't hold everyone accountable for this the same way, I do think even those for whom choosing to fight against this is hard- steel need to fight inertia and fear and stand up against it where they feel they safely can (if losing your job means you will starve or can't buy medicine or your kids suffer, I get it..) but if losing your job means you have to live with loving financially secure family while you get a new one-- which is the couragous choice? To ask for help that is there, to stand up for say-- kids at risk of death at your site of employment- or to barge ahead saying it's more ethical to "do for yourself".

There are a lot of egotisical mentalities we feed in our culture about choosing to be automous-- no matter who it hurts- and seeing that as more ethical than waiting for an ethical job. We have values that feed behavior like this, and it's on all of us to challenge those attitudes and stop feeding value systems that support stuff like this. There's also entire work site cultures and community values that feed enduring suffering and harmful conditions as a matter of pride-- but the question is who benefits from that masochism, where does the money go? Who is actually doing the hardest work (risking their lives) and who is living like kings and queens of it?

Also I shit you not, I was thinking about all of this in the car SPECIFICALLY ABOUT THIS TYPE OF WORK with the grains and deaths and then this showed up.

And I was thinking who THE LIVING FUCK sends someone down there AGAIN without restructuring it after the fist death? Why do we keep buying this stuff from such assholes? If you will starve without it I'm sympathetic, but if it's not a life or death situation I do think we need to use any type of power we possibly can to fight this injustice- and that includes but is not limited to, never buying this shit until we see they are actually following safety standards that eliminate deaths to zero per year. People who die in service to their community are heros. I'm not going to say there aren't causes worth taking such risks. But--Is grain worth making martyrs of our people?
posted by xarnop at 2:44 PM on December 18, 2014 [4 favorites]


Gendered slur or not, I really feel the entire thing is a derail so maybe please we could drop it. I've spent most of my life in a primarily agricultural area, and my sense of things is that safety has improved by leaps and bounds over my lifetime -- there's no sudden shift in anti-regulation sentiment that can be blamed on machismo or what have you.

The main thing is that working on a farm has always been pretty dangerous, and there are many different ways that routine tasks can suddenly kill or maim you. The tractor that you turn a little wide and topples you into a ditch before following you in and crushing you, for instance. There's equipment everywhere that can horrifically tear a human body apart, and yet you've grown up playing around, so you feel preternaturally safe with. It's only in the last couple of decades that grain bin deaths were any more than "routine" tragedies -- when it became clear that most were eminently avoidable. But the temptation to keep doing what you've done your whole life the same way you've been doing it is strong.

And safety equipment is expensive, and you don't really get to raise your prices to pay for it. At its best, the corn business is a commodity business, and the market strictly dictates your profits -- which are marginal at best. The trend toward corporate farming is mainly that corporate farms can aggregate marginal profits and weather price downturns better than a small, family operation (whatever the romance and political appeal of that image).

It's really complicated. Farms and farm-related industry can resemble factory operations but in practice are still run a lot like a family business, or perhaps co-ops even when that isn't the legal structure. It's not so much callous disregard for underlings as it is fear and necessity that drive these decisions, and certainly the outcomes seem to have haunting aftermaths for families, managers, and communities. Personally, I think empathetic education and awareness is a better approach, perhaps with a means to subsidize purchase of safety equipment and professionalized training.
posted by dhartung at 2:51 PM on December 18, 2014 [13 favorites]


I write about these deaths far too often: Walking Down the Grain

Grain Bin Safety - video produced by the National Corn Growers Association and the National Grain and Feed Foundation - this is about the kids who died that th3ph17 posted about. The video also talks about safety measures, training and rescue procedures.

OSHA on grain handling - OSHA has been focusing on silo entrapment for the last 4 or 5 years.

A grain elevator exploded a couple blocks away from my house a few years back
That's combustible dust - a frequent cause of workplace explosions in all kinds of industries.
posted by madamjujujive at 2:52 PM on December 18, 2014 [7 favorites]


xarnop: " I was thinking about all of this in the car [...] Why do we keep buying this stuff from such assholes? If you will starve without it I'm sympathetic, but if it's not a life or death situation I do think we need to use any type of power we possibly can to fight this injustice- and that includes but is not limited to, never buying this shit "

The commodity corn is coming from INSIDE THE VEHICLE!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:59 PM on December 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


This is entirely the fault of the person who sent the workers in. OSHA has an operation like this covered completely: it's called a confined space and, at minimum, requires a safety assessment prior to work, a written plan and permit, a safety person not in the space but in contact with the workers, training for the workers, and an emergency response plan.

Working from height requires fall-arresting equipment, and there should be a lock out/tag out system in place to prevent anyone outside the space from starting any equipment.

These kinds of accidents are 100% preventable, and they people who sent these kids into such a dangerous situation need to be criminally prosecuted.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 3:19 PM on December 18, 2014 [4 favorites]


The problem is most small operations ( I believe it's less than ten employees) aren't subject to OSHA regulations.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 3:22 PM on December 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


Meaningful criminal prosecutions are so rare and fines are little more than a slap on the wrist to big corporations; generally they are bargained down over time. Proving criminal intent that pierces the "exclusive remedy" of workers comp is tough.

Different industry, but here's one bright spot that I am following with great interest and great hopes: Longtime Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship indicted - in May 2010, 29 miners died and this guy is finally being criminally held responsible for their deaths. It would be justice if this villain spent the rest of his life in jail.

Trench deaths are another form of suffocation that are mind-numbingly common despite being 100% preventable. I favor criminal prosecutions for serial violators.
posted by madamjujujive at 3:29 PM on December 18, 2014 [4 favorites]


Yeah it sucks-- we literally consume on the deaths of our fellow humans- there are plenty of reasons- like for example- there is no bus system at all where I am staying and I have been dealing with disablities so on a budget of zero- I am at the mercy of the decisions of family who will help on a lot of things- and that's what I mean about understanding, If I don't drive us to the grocery store using the family car I am allowed to use for some things, we will starve. I try to grow my own food but I don't have the growing capacity to feed all our needs at present. So yes, there are life or death needs. And many decisions being made, such as kicking people off the land if they can't pay enough in profit- means we are driving the type of fear and necessity by the way we structure society. Personally I think the right to live off the land is an innate human right. No government should ahve the right to kick people off their fucking land because they can't pay ridiculous fucking taxes. The people own the land. The gov serves the people (supposedly) so it needs to back the fuck off taking lands and housing. Then people will not live in terror of having their family farm taken away from the gov.

But where we are talking necessity we do need to find solutions and they need to take into account more than just creating standards that companies can not meet. We do need to listen to business owners and managers about WHY they aren't meeting safety standards.. ARE there legitimate reasons? Do we need to provide more funding or resources to help them accomplish more workable safety solutions?

Also as I tend to repetedly say I am a fan of harm reduction, the fact that we are not perfect does not mean we can't work for progress rather than focusing on shaming each other for where we are. We can still encourage each other to do what we can and that it's a GOOD thing to try without shooting down the messenger about their faults to make ourselves feel better. Yes we all have faults and we feed off a sick system. That doesn't mean we need to protest the idea of working to make it better, which includes making ebtter personal decisions where we can, as well as putting greater pressure on those doing this through any means we can but that also includes makinga huge fucking stink about the porducts and companies doing this and making them fear repercussions from the market if they don't get their shit together-- I also think without a safety net, we will continue to see people make callous and wreckless decisions in production because they fear for their lives- they could lose housing and food access if they don't just do whatever the job demands to stay afloat. That kind of fear is powerful and homelessness, starvation, untreated disease and death are understanable drivers of unsafe behavior.
posted by xarnop at 3:30 PM on December 18, 2014


This is entirely the fault of the person who sent the workers in.

I agree that the supervisor absolutely could have prevented this tragedy, easily. But prosecuting him will not save one more life. Safety in any operation is something that must be made part of the organizational culture, and it has to start at the top, with someone who will ensure that it is rigorously enforced all the way down. Otherwise, coming down on front-line supervisors is just moving up one rung on that ladder of responsibility.
posted by ogooglebar at 3:53 PM on December 18, 2014 [9 favorites]


What ogooglebar said.

This is the most nightmarish fucking thing I've heard about in a long time, and I'm totally down with giving Schaffer his share of the blame, but by god there is plenty of blame for everyone in this situation.

If you are running a business, and getting yearly reports of deaths due to something as easily avoidable as this? Then you make absolutely fucking sure that your supervisors know what they are sending their employees into, what the risks are, and what the worst case scenario is.

Like, I get what people have said about machismo and habit keeping people from using safety equipment, but there's a very big difference between the stupid shit you'll do yourself despite knowing it's dangerous, and the stupid shit you'll let teenage kids do if you know it's dangerous.
posted by emperor.seamus at 4:04 PM on December 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


I agree that the supervisor absolutely could have prevented this tragedy, easily. But prosecuting him will not save one more life. Safety in any operation is something that must be made part of the organizational culture, and it has to start at the top, with someone who will ensure that it is rigorously enforced all the way down. Otherwise, coming down on front-line supervisors is just moving up one rung on that ladder of responsibility.

Safety does need to be part of the company culture, no doubt. But, under OSHA's General Conditions clause, employers are required, by law, to provide their employees with a safe working environment. Also, since so many companies are willing to skimp on safety, maybe some serious punishments would encourage more industry-wide compliance.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 4:22 PM on December 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


And some of the responsibility for worker and public safety lies with the lawmakers. Depressingly, this just happened: Government Funding Bill Rolls Back Trucker Rest Requirements
posted by madamjujujive at 4:27 PM on December 18, 2014 [6 favorites]


I grew up on a small farm in the 1970s and '80s. Every town and school had kids that were scarred or missing digits from farm equipment. Silo deaths were rare but a known occurrence.

despite that, no one batted an eye when we as 9 and 10 year olds played in the corn silos or wagons, which we did. We were told about the risks and did it anyhow.

I'm not entirely even sure how to frame this but living on a farm is fucking dangerous. At some point you sort of become inured to the risks. I grew up shooting firearms from a very young age, because groundhogs and raccoons are disease-carrying pests. Rabbits are a good supplemental source of food if your food budget is thin, which with my mother being marginally employed at times, was a thing too. I was taught proper respect and safety protocols for firearms and that was that, it was assumed I'd be responsible with them. I was, but there were plenty of kids taught the same way I was who weren't.

idk. I'm not trying to seem callous or dismissive or deflect blame or whatever here but frankly everyone I grew up with knew about the risks of death and/or dismemberment doing farm work and we did it anyway. That's not to be machismo or whatever, it just was the way it was, and knowing how slowly things change in rural communities, I expect it's still that way to a large degree. It's not to say these people care any less about their kids or relatives but I can also understand the mentality of the townspeople who are reluctant to drag bad after worse in prosecuting the supervisor, who is likely a close friend and social pillar of the community. Will it bring the deceased back to life? No. Will it ruin his life and potentially his family's livelihood? Very likely, so let's learn from that and move on, and make it so this doesn't happen again.

That's not to say that more compassionate education and stricter regulations SHOULDN'T be a thing, because yes, they absolutely should. Generally things on the farm as I have seen them evolve over the past 20 years have gotten a lot safer. The ONLY reason this particular story is a thing now is because the internet and social media exists and someone in the news had a slow day. Believe me there are hundreds of completely preventable industrial and farm accidents that happen annually that don't get covered. There are also over thirty thousand people who die ugly, horrible, painful tragic deaths annually in car accidents, many of them teenagers. You'd think we'd be more horrified about that as well, wouldn't you? Doesn't stop millions of us from getting behind the wheel, so I guess it's one of those things that's a known risk and we just go on about our day because surely that could never happen to me, right?

The problem with completely ignorant city dwelling strangers reading these stories and being aghast that such a thing exists (because they'd been ignorant of it until now) and then hollering on the internet about how "they should do something" is that first of all, yes, we knew this was a Very Bad Thing years ago, thank you for treating us like dumb hicks, and second of all, enacting punitive measures after the fact, especially in situations like this where it's always just sort of been socially and culturally accepted as a norm that "it's always been that way", does very little to solve the issue, and generally only creates more resentment, backlash and (even more worryingly) tends to increase things like coverups or reluctance to report incidences.

yes, management should absolutely do more about safety in general with employees, whether its deli slicers or meatpacking plants or mowing lawns in the suburbs or, gee, even parents making sure their kids don't text and drive.
posted by lonefrontranger at 4:42 PM on December 18, 2014 [9 favorites]


At some point you sort of become inured to the risks.

I am sympathetic to the issues of rural life but this is a legitimate problem.

so let's learn from that and move on, and make it so this doesn't happen again.

I agree with you except this part never seems to happen.

We actually have learned a lot of collective lessons as a society and this is why meat packing plants, as insanely dangerous as they are, are a lot safer than they once were.

It's not a question of being condescending to farm workers so much as holding them account to actually make the changes necessary to stop these things from happening.

completely ignorant city dwelling strangers reading these stories and being aghast that such a thing exists

Sure, there's a lot of outrage tourism here but there is are also real issues that farm workers are simply ignoring rather than addressing. Being inured to risk isn't helping anyone.
posted by GuyZero at 4:55 PM on December 18, 2014 [5 favorites]


C'mon. Thousands die in cars, but carmakers are required to not make deathtraps. And cars get safer every year.

Also, this is definitely not about being condescending or not understanding the issues. I didn't live on a farm, but I grew up in farmland and worked on farms, dairies and even an icehouse.

Being safer is as easy as being less safe, plain and simple. And being safer doesn't mean people still won't die.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 5:05 PM on December 18, 2014 [4 favorites]


I lived in the Midwest until I was about 11 or so -- my friends and I were taught to never, ever, EVER go inso a grain silo to play. But at the same time, my older brother and his friends, only a couple of years older than me, spent their summers de-tasseling corn, which couldn't possibly have been safe. (The sunstroke alone was crazy.) I never ended up doing that job because we moved before I was tall enough.
posted by sarcasticah at 5:09 PM on December 18, 2014


..so let's learn from that and move on, and make it so this doesn't happen again..
The problem with that approach is that without ensuring that the consequences are very significant, the lesson learned by the parties who have disproportionate decision-making power over these situations is that the likeliest outcome is that nothing much will happen to them.

I don't think the full weight of the law needs to descend upon one individual and single him out for the systemic failures that allow these sorts of "accidents" to happen again and again, but there absolutely should be a clear and powerful disincentive to cut corners on worker safety.

Also: I think the "condescending city folk vs. rural hicks" angle is one you're bringing to this yourself and I don't think it's constructive OR justified. Many of the contributors to this discussion have indicated that they come from backgrounds where this has been part of their experience and most have not shared your "that's just how it is in the country" take on this..
posted by Nerd of the North at 5:13 PM on December 18, 2014


lonefrontranger I'll put my hands up to having had a knee jerk reaction to what a freakin' scary way to die this is. That said, the issue here isn't that this kind of work is inherently dangerous. The issue is that these kids were sent in without being told anything about the risks, or how those risks could be reduced.

Like, with no sarcasm or sass intended, maybe I am being ignorant to assume that their supervisor didn't know how serious the situation could become. Straight up, I can not imagine someone who knew that this was a possibility, sending in a 14 year old kid to do it, with no kind of safety guidance or training.
posted by emperor.seamus at 5:15 PM on December 18, 2014


Companies will always choose money over health and safety.

There are whole countries where effective regulation and enforcement prevent companies from excusing death and injury on those grounds. The US is one of the few "first-world" countries that tolerates this kind of thing. After a while it just looks like simple refusal to deal with reality. How many examples of corporate irresponsibility will it take to start enforcing existing regulations?

Also: Government Funding Bill Rolls Back Trucker Rest Requirements
WTF??
posted by sneebler at 5:17 PM on December 18, 2014 [6 favorites]


My organization's information table at the County Fair was next to the table for farm safety, which had an absolutely terrifying display about grain entrapment. I hope it had an effect.
posted by acrasis at 5:39 PM on December 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


As a supervisor of people who sometimes do dangerous things, I'd really like to second Chrischris that the pressure point here to change something is usually the direct supervisor. If the worker isn't crazy about doing it, there has to be someone telling them to do it anyway. Burn that person at the stake, and this stops happening. Because nobody will be willing to be the person who has to tell them that anymore. The management can want all it wants, but unless they can find the person willing to sign their name or give the order themself, it just stays a wish.

In fairness, though, sometimes *I'm* the one who has to intervene when my employees WANT to take safety shortcuts. Sometimes you do something often enough and nothing bad happens, you start to forget what COULD happen. I've had a few "you did what? Never, ever do that again" moments. So it isn't always that they're being forced to risk their lives. Sometimes they just do it without asking.
posted by ctmf at 7:15 PM on December 18, 2014 [4 favorites]


fuck all of the following:

  1. Capitalism.
  2. The patriarchy, for providing macho bullshit that capital-holders can exploit to save money.
  3. Industrial farming.
  4. Everything being fucked up and bullshit.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 7:58 PM on December 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


I was talking to a Midwest couple I met one night and this came up in conversation, since this is how their kid died. I'm not sure how I made it through that entire conversation, but I'm thankful I had a lot to drink.

IIRC, their kid was 15.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:27 PM on December 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


I understand the desire to focus anger and blame on the supervisor. I don't expect to change anyone's minds really (and as a father I certainly relate to the anger) but I also grew up inside of this culture. I would bet money that you had there was a low paid, largely untrained, nominally in-charge laborer who was completely dependent on this job to hang on to a basically lower class existence, and if the grain didn't end up in the hopper cars the shipping schedule said it needed to end up in that night he would be fired. So he did what they always did, what everybody else did under the same circumstances, what he had probably personally done hundreds of times while a teenager himself. Right now someone is walking down the corn that you and I will eat in a fucking taco because it is expedient and cheap and effective and because at the end of the day, no real pressure is brought to bear on the only people who could really shift this culture - the shareholders and owners - and the reasons for that are diverse, complicated, and very political. And they are also occurring all over every kind of industry everywhere - this is just one specific of a ubiquitous reality of American work culture.

If you want to argue that none of that matters, that at the end of the day he made the call, he followed the unlawful procedures and should be prosecuted fine, and you certainly have an argument, but it would not do shit to prevent the inevitable future accidents that will kill kids in years to come. Like the owners and shareholders would give a fuck if a thousand of their podunk managers got thrown in jail. This guy didn't send those kids up to walk down the corn because he felt like well if they get hurt or die I'm sure I won't be prosecuted because that never happens. To change the culture would require a culture of inspection and aggressive punishment for non-compliance before accidents occur that is sorely lacking in every aspect of industrial regulation in America. There is no real effective political will to regulate business. It is far too easy to claim progress by creating more toothless regulatory paper with no financial support to make it possible to back it up. Not to mention a significant component of politicians campaigning effectively on the basis of the idea that business is in fact over-regulated and that's why the economy sucks.
posted by nanojath at 11:11 PM on December 18, 2014 [14 favorites]


At my bike shop job we're sticklers for safety. That mostly just means wearing safety glasses and storing hazardous chemicals in the appropriate place.

At my engineering job, however, the owner takes a pretty lax view of safety regulations. There are mills, lathes, punch presses, grinders, polishers, and water jets, all of which are highly capable of taking your eye out. Nobody is required to wear safety glasses. I asked the owner about this one day, and he told me that if he required everyone to wear glasses, then when someone gets hurt he could be held liable. However, if he leaves personal safety up to the employee, when they get hurt, it's their own fault.

I.........had no words. I don't know what the laws are (I'm in Texas) regarding employee safety, but I don't step foot in the shop without glasses (usually, there are times where I break the rules, but I'm generally not operating the equipment), but almost nobody here wears PPE. It's definitely seen as "being a pussy" if you want to delay the start of your task so you can go find a respirator or safety glasses.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 11:56 AM on December 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


spikeleeetc., even in Texas, I would think you could file a complaint. Texas still has workplace safety laws in effect, so I think your supervisor is talking out of his ass. I'm no lawyer, but that sounds like a lawsuit just waiting to happen.

The Safety Violations Hotline is here.
posted by emjaybee at 1:53 PM on December 19, 2014


nanojath: exactly.

I work in a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant. We deal with strict regulatory health and safety and everyone of us gets it drilled into our heads that anytime we pass the "yellow line" into the manufacturing areas, we absolutely must follow approved safety procedures, from eyewear to shoes to breathing equipment, ladder safety, observation of isolation booth procedures, glovebox protocols, etc, etc, etc... Every single person on the plant site I work on, from the QC lab rats to the wrench turners to the operators, from the receptionist to the CEO, not only knows what proper confined space and nitrogen asphyxiation procedures are, they also know that there's a real potential to not only lose one's job for not following safety procedures, but for the site to have their license to operate revoked whereupon EVERYONE loses their job and the place shuts down. This has been exhaustively communicated in those terms. The site has had director level individuals fired in prior decades for not giving proper weight to compliance issues, and it was made very clear that's why they were sacked.

That, however, is a GMP regulated pharmaceutical site with 300 employees, not a rural farm operation of 5 or 10. I thoroughly concur that our nation and sociopolitical environment does a Bad Job at this sort of thing, but a rural family farm that may or may not even qualify under OSHA oversight is not the same thing as a meatpacking plant.

we're talking about multiple vectors of risk management; there's the mechanical safety factors which could be solved with failsafes of some description but then what do you do about the guys using 50 year old equipment? People still drive quite a few older cars, too. There's the human factors of socialization and the regulatory and political and legal factors too. It's a very complicated tangle.

so okay to continue with the automobile analogy: cars have indeed been made very safe over the past 20 years, however that still hasn't solved the fact that a teenager speeding and texting will suffer massive life-ending deceleration trauma when they hit a tree at 80mph regardless of how many airbags deploy.
posted by lonefrontranger at 7:54 PM on December 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


Farms have been exempt from a lot of protective laws from the very beginning both because they are perceived as essential and because it is perceived that the family farm could not possibly afford the kind of compliance that a chemical plant can demand. They are exempt to this day from child labor laws that apply to every other industry for the same reason.

Ironically, it is the family farm that enables this exceptionalism and the factory farm which argues against it. It is simply not viable to ask a small family farm which does not have economies of scale to forego the use of labor or attain the level of safety a large modern industrial operation can manage. But there aren't many farms like that left, and the large modern industrial farms are taking advantage of exceptions they don't need. Indeed, a lot of privileges go to these corporate farmers that were meant for families and have become nothing but obscene giveaways to the already rich.

I suspect that is the root problem here. We know workers need to be protected in the course of dangerous work and that employers need to be forced to apply such protection. Farms are exempted for reasons which are largely obsolete. Those exceptions need to end, if not for all farms then certainly for all of more than say 200 acres.
posted by localroger at 8:09 PM on December 19, 2014 [6 favorites]


The post above basically nailed it. Pay more for your food, get more regulations imposed. See ,possibly, more factory farms because of higher prices and more regulations. See less people die.
posted by sety at 7:44 AM on December 20, 2014


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