Worker Deaths: Business as Usual

Last November, four workers died from poison-gas inhalation at a pesticide plant in La Porte, Texas. (I was unable to find a report that named the four workers, but it is known that two of the victims were brothers Gilbert and Robert Tisnado.) The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently released a report concluding that the four workers “would be alive today had their employer, DuPont, taken steps to protect them.”

DuPont is a corporation with a capitalization value of $63.6 billion. OSHA fined the company just $99,000 for its fatal safety violations.

That story reminded me of a report by Howard Berkes on National Public Radio about workers who suffocated in grain silos. The cause of those deaths is a practice called “walking down the grain.” When grain stored in silos sticks to the sides or fails to settle evenly, bosses send workers into the silo with instructions to push the grain down, either by using shovels or by walking on it. Air pockets often form in the grain, so there is great danger of a quicksand effect.

Bill Field, a professor of agriculture at Purdue University, has calculated the death toll. According to NPR,

Field counts more than 660 farmers and workers who suffocated in nearly 1,000 grain entrapments since 1964 at both commercial facilities and on farms. Nearly 500 died in grain bins. One in four victims was younger than 18. 

The NPR report shows in horrific detail how those workers die. In 2010, three workers (Will Piper, Alex Pacas, and Wyatt Whitebread) walked down corn at a grain-storage site owned by Haasbach, LLC in Mount Carroll, Illinois. At 20, Piper was the oldest. Whitebread was only 14. The corn shifted under their feet and they were pulled downward. Whitebread was covered completely and died. Piper and Pacas struggled on for hours, as other employees and rescue personnel tried to extract them.

Pacas finally succumbed. Piper barely survived, after being “trapped for a couple more hours, as he remembers it, almost face to face with his dead friend [Pacas].” Berkes and NPR also noted that, due to the extreme force exerted by the mountain of corn, Pacas’s body was “pockmarked like a golf ball.”

The employer showed no regard for the workers’ safety, even to the point of informing them of dangers. “I had no idea that someone could get trapped and die in the corn,” Piper noted. OSHA fined the company $550,000 for safety violations, but later reduced the fine by more than half.

Will we ever see the day when workers’ lives stop being cheap commodities? Why is that when workers are killed on the job by employers with no regard for life, it isn’t regarded as a crime? Why don’t the deaths of workers qualify as important news at most media outlets?

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