NPR Report Takes Stock Of Grain Bin Deaths Across U.S. Including Idaho

Mar 29, 2013

This week an NPR  series has focused on worker deaths in grain storage bins around the country.  Now the Justice Department and others are beginning to respond. NPR reports Friday the Department will again consider criminal charges in a case of a boy who died in a grain bin three years ago in Illinois.

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Credit Molly Messick / Boise State Public Radio/StateImpact Idaho

Idaho has had its share of tragedies in grain bins.

In the last 40 years, some 500 farmers and workers have died in grain storage bins in the U.S. The worst year was 2010 when 26 people died including one worker in Idaho.

An Occupational Safety and Health Administration report notes the employee worked for General Mills in Newdale, in Eastern Idaho. The worker entered into a grain bin to clear a jam. The bin was about a third full of barley. The employee cleared that jam and then was engulfed in grain.

The initial penalty to the company was $53,000. It was reduced to $17,500.

This is typical according to NPR’s research. Employers can challenge and negotiate fines, and in every grain death NPR found, OSHA fines were cut on average by more than half.

But OSHA policy is to consider sending willful citations to the Justice Department. Those are the violations involving plain indifference to the law. Our review found that OSHA downgraded or dropped willful citations almost half the time. Since 2001, the agency had 19 failed grain incidents that were eligible for criminal prosecution.

Eight were sent to U.S. attorneys, three through criminal charges, which doesn't surprise Jane Barrett, a former federal prosecutor now at the University of Maryland College of Law. ~ NPR's Howard Berkes

Idaho has two other OSHA-investigated grain operation deaths since the late '80s. One happened in 1994 and the other in 1987. That case involved a 15-year-old employee in Pocatello.

You can go through NPR's database on grain deaths in the U.S. here.

A North Idaho man survived a grain bin incident near Bonners Ferry earlier this week. The Bonner County Daily Bee reports the man went into the bin on Monday to unplug a jam while loading grain onto trucks. He was trapped up to his armpits in grain and couldn't free himself. He was freed after several hours.