A new report from grain safety researchers at Purdue University says eight people died while trapped in grain last year, another steep drop from the record year of 2010, when 31 people lost their lives in grain bins and other grain storage facilities.
The continued decline in incidents since 2010 is credited to drier and smaller harvests since then. The grain stored in bins in 2010 was generally harvested wet and tended to spoil and clog. Workers and farmers went into bins to unclog grain and were trapped in a "quicksand" effect common in flowing grain.
"There were fewer encounters with spoiled grain and thus fewer entrapments for 2012," the report says.
NPR and the Center of Public Integrity (NPR/CPI) reported in March that more than 660 farmers and workers died in more than 1,000 grain entrapment incidents since 1964.
NPR and CPI identified 179 fatal grain bin incidents in which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited bin owners for violating federal safety regulations. We found that OSHA cut fines 60 percent overall for violators, even when workers died and underage workers were victims.
In many cases, as NPR/CPI reported, employers sent workers (including illegally-employed teenagers) into grain bins without required training and safety equipment and without shutting off equipment that creates the "quicksand" effect.
OSHA regulations require the use of safety harnesses and spotters, and shutdown of equipment that causes grain to flow. Nearly all fatal incidents reviewed by NPR/CPI involved violation of some or all grain safety standards and regulations.
NPR/CPI also identified dozens of incidents that had not been included in Purdue's database of grain entrapment incidents, which goes back to 1964.
That prompted Purdue researchers to revise their grim statistics. Their new report shows that more people were trapped in 2010 (57) and more died (26) than previously reported.
Since 2010, OSHA has increased enforcement and awareness efforts, the grain industry bolstered education and training programs, and more emergency response agencies received special grain rescue tubes and training.
But this year, drought has turned to deluge in portions of the grain belt and concern is growing about another wet harvest, more clogged bins and more farmers and workers dying in grain.
The commercial grain industry has argued against additional enforcement and regulation, citing something the Purdue researchers have reported for years and repeated in their latest report.
"Historically, approximately 70 percent of all documented entrapments, where the type of work site was known, have occurred on farms or other locations currently exempt from" OSHA regulation, the Purdue report says.
In other words, the commercial grain industry is reportedly responsible for far less grain deaths and entrapments than farms.
But the additional incidents identified by NPR/CPI dramatically change that statistic and the Purdue researchers fail to note that in their new report. Industry and unregulated farms are almost equally responsible for grain entrapments, according to a February memo to NPR/CPI provided by the Purdue researchers.
When asked about the discrepancy, Purdue's Bill Field, the school's lead grain safety researcher, said, "You are correct." Field acknowledged that his team needs "to do something that just addresses that issue. And we will."
Missing from the new report, Field said, are statistics that show 32 percent of all reported grain entrapments occurred at commercial grain facilities. An equal number - also 32 percent - occurred at farms that are not regulated by OSHA. The remaining incidents - 36 percent - did not have the type of facility identified.
"We have moved from our perception at Purdue of a 70-30 split," Field acknowledged, but he also maintains that the split is still accurate "historically."
Field receives funding for his research and for his grain safety efforts from the grain industry and from the Department of Labor but he says his sources of funding had nothing to do with the way he reported the latest grain entrapment and fatality data. He promises an update soon.