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Friday, July 11, 2014

60 killed in grain elevators in Kansas since 1980

BY HURST LAVIANA
The Wichita Eagle

Over the past three decades, more than 680 Kansans have been killed on the job. Nearly one in 10 died while working at a grain elevator. The 60 grain elevator deaths include three painters who fell 125 feet from the top of an elevator in Jetmore in 1982.

They include four members of a cleaning crew that was in the DeBruce Grain elevator south of Wichita when it exploded in 1998.

Forty-eight of the workers who died in elevators were doing jobs classified by OSHA as "grain and field bean" work. According to OSHA, it's the most dangerous job you can have if you work in Kansas.

The DeBruce explosion, which killed seven and injured 10, made national headlines and resulted in a substantial OSHA fine.

But all of the other grain and field bean workers who have died since 1980 were killed in single-fatality accidents. Nearly half died when they were engulfed by grain.

"It's just one of the most dangerous places in the world to work," said Ron Hayes, who became a workplace safety advocate after his 19-year-old son, Patrick, was buried by 60 tons of corn while working in a Florida grain bin in 1993.

"You've got all these electrical contacts," Hayes said. "You've got all these gears and chains and belts.

"And then there's the dust. When you go into these bins and grain elevators, sometimes you can't even see. It's a white-out almost."

Hayes said he began researching workplace safety after becoming frustrated with his inability to get information about his son's death. He said he now thinks most people hired by grain elevators don't realize the dangers of the job they are taking.

"Call 100 people and ask them, 'Do you think corn or soybeans would be dangerous to work with?' " he said. "They're going to say no. But it's very, very hazardous."

The second-most-dangerous job in Kansas is "sewer, pipeline, and power line construction" worker, OSHA records show. Workers in that category accounted for 32 workplace deaths from 1980 through 2009.

The third- and fourth-most-dangerous jobs are "highway and street construction," with 28 deaths, and "roofing, siding, and sheet metal" work, with 25.

A review of Kansas' grain elevator deaths shows that the seven men who died at DeBruce were the only workers killed by an explosion.

OSHA records show that 21 of the workers were buried under grain, five others were crushed by equipment, five died in falls and three were electrocuted.

Hayes said when the coroner couldn't answer detailed questions about his son's death, he began to research what happens when a person is covered by grain.

Death comes from asphyxia, he said, when the pressure of the grain prevents the victim's diaphragm from contracting. Most workers, he said, die with their hands reaching upward.

"It took them five hours to dig him out," he said of the recovery of his son's body. "His ears were packed with corn dust. His nose, his eyes, were packed with corn dust. It was just packed solid. They had to dig it out."

OSHA's involvement

A serious workplace accident — one involving a death or the hospitalization of three or more workers — automatically triggers an investigation by OSHA.

In all but nine of the investigations that followed grain elevator deaths, the OSHA inspection turned up one or more violations of workplace safety standards. When violations were found, the fines in the single-fatality deaths ranged from $83 to $77,800.

The $650,000 fine that was assessed after the DeBruce blast was the second-largest in state history.

The largest was a $1.5 million fine assessed to National Beef Packing Co. of Liberal after the deaths of three workers who were overcome by toxic fumes in a blood-collection tank.

OSHA can levy fines of up to $7,000 for each violation. If the violation is willful — if management was aware of the problem and did not correct it — the company can be fined up to $70,000 per violation.

OSHA blamed the DeBruce explosion on a buildup of dust throughout the elevator and a general lack of maintenance. Investigators said they found piles of dust up to 7 inches deep.

OSHA inspections

In Kansas, OSHA conducts an average of 800 inspections a year.

About 3 percent are triggered by serious accidents, while 4 percent are "referrals" that are launched after a credible source alerts OSHA to a potential problem.

OSHA records show that 5 percent of its inspections are follow-ups, and 18 percent are triggered by complaints from current or former workers.

The bulk of inspections are "programmed," which means they are designed to target specific hazards.

Since 1980, OSHA has conducted 340 grain elevator inspections in Kansas. Nearly 40 percent occurred during the three years following the DeBruce explosion.

The elevator inspections included 46 that were prompted by serious accidents, 35 that arose from worker complaints, and 31 that were follow-ups from previous inspections. Most were programmed inspections.

Terry Kohler, Garden Plain Co-op general manger, said OSHA plays a key role in making sure that workplaces are safe.

"Sometimes we squirm and worry when we hear that word 'OSHA,' but they're also there to help us," he said.

Joe Schauf, general manager of Nickerson Co-op, agreed.

"They have a job to do, too," he said. "It's good they come around to check on some of these things. For the most part, co-ops all work well with them. OSHA is going to tell you when you screw up."

Hayes, whose son died, said he has developed a love-hate relationship with OSHA over the years. He said he appreciates the fact that OSHA pressures companies to keep workplaces safe. But he said most OSHA fines are small, and he wishes the agency would focus more on being proactive rather than reactive.

Hayes said that after his son's death, he found OSHA to be of little help. Today, he said, OSHA is more user-friendly to relatives of accident victims. For example, he said, the agency no longer charges grieving survivors for copies of reports about the deaths of their loved ones.

Hayes said he thinks American companies generally are getting better at investing in safety training and equipment.

"You've got a lot of good companies out there that want to do the right thing," he said. "Then you've got some companies that just don't give a rat's patoot."

Nationwide, he said, "We'll have 16 people die today on the job. There'll be 16 families that have to go to the morgue and identify a husband or son or brother or child.

"Every day that happens. And that doesn't even count the families of the ones that have been hurt."

Contributing: Rick Plumlee of The Eagle Reach Hurst Laviana at 316-268-6499 or hlaviana@wichitaeagle.com.

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