March 24, 2013
Emerson Brown, NPR





Federal regulators routinely slash major fines and void the most serious violations even when egregious and willful behavior by employers results in "drownings" in grain storage bins, according to an investigation by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity (CPI). For "Buried In Grain," NPR rural affairs correspondent Howard Berkes and CPI senior reporter Jim Morris obtained and analyzed hundreds of Labor Department records detailing the response of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to 179 grain bin deaths since 1984.

"Buried In Grain" is now available online at, and two reports from Berkes air Tuesday March 26, on All Things Considered and Wednesday, March 27, on Morning Edition. Visitors to can also explore an interactive detailing each of the 179 fatal OSHA cases that NPR and CPI identified and analyzed, and the OSHA case file for a 2010 incident in Illinois featured prominently in Berkes' and Morris' stories.

A database at Purdue University - which experts and federal officials often defer to for statistics about grain entrapment - indicates more than 660 farmers and workers have suffocated in grain since 1964, and hundreds more have survived being trapped. The incidents occur mostly in massive grain bins on farms and at commercial grain elevators when farmers and workers climb in them to break up clogged grain. This practice of "walking down grain" has been illegal since 1996 but workers are still assigned the task, and deaths persist despite threats of fines and criminal charges. These disincentives for violating worker safety laws are supposed to keep companies from sending workers into dangerous conditions in grain bins and from neglecting required training and safety equipment.

Among the key findings:
  • OSHA cut total fines for grain fatalities 60 percent, from $9.2 million to $3.8 million since 1984

  • The average OSHA fine reduction in grain fatalities is 50 percent, but the five largest fines ever, which ranged from $530,000 to $1.6 million, were cut from 50 to 97 percent.

  • Since 1993, 21 fatal and nonfatal incidents resulted in fines over $100,000 but the fine amounts were later cut in 80 percent of the cases. The fines ranging from $111,600 to $1.6 million were cut from 40 to 97 percent.

  • Since 2001, 19 fatal and non-fatal incidents resulted in "willful" OSHA citations, which make criminal charges possible. Eight were referred to the Justice Department for prosecution. Three resulted in criminal charges.

  • Nearly half the willful citations initially cited since 1984 were erased or downgraded.
  • Berkes and Morris explore the larger issues through an in-depth look at an incident in 2010 in Mt. Carroll, Illinois, in which three teenaged workers were trapped by a "quicksand effect" in a massive grain bin. Two died, including an underage worker, a 14-year-old boy. A third victim, Will Piper, was trapped for six hours before being rescued. In the report, Piper recalls his ordeal and Berkes uses excerpts from 13 hours of 911 and emergency radio audio to help reconstruct the tragic event. Berkes and Morris report that OSHA cut the fine in the case 60 percent and the Justice Department declined to prosecute despite it being "the worst of the worst cases," according to John Newquist, a recently retired OSHA official.

    Analysis by Berkes and Morris has also identified dozens of fatal incidents not found in the Purdue University database which has prompted a revision in its overall numbers. In response to the NPR and CPI stories, the database reports 663 deaths in 946 grain entrapments since 1964, with at least 498 of the deaths occurring in grain bins and silos.

    Before the NPR/CPI investigation, Purdue reported that historically, 70 percent of grain bin entrapments occurred on farms largely exempt from OSHA regulation. With the additional incidents identified by NPR and CPI, Purdue now reports that 52 percent of the incidents occur on farms; 48 percent occur at commercial facilities regulated by OSHA.

    "Buried In Grain" is a joint investigation from NPR and the Center for Public Integrity. The NPR series is produced and reported by correspondent Howard Berkes, editor Andrea de Leon and supervising editor Steve Drummond. The Center's team includes senior reporter Jim Morris, reporter Chris Hamby and editor Ronnie Greene.

    About NPR Investigations:
    NPR's award winning Investigative work includes Brain Wars, an ongoing examination of traumatic brain injury and the military; Black Lung Returns to Coal Country, exploring the factors leading to a resurgence of the disease in miners; and Poisoned Places, making public for the first time an EPA watch list that includes serious or chronic Clean Air Act violators. NPR reaches a growing audience of more than 26 million listeners weekly; to find local stations and broadcast times for NPR programs, visit

    About the Center for Public Integrity:
    The Center for Public Integrity, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, and independent digital news organization specializing in original investigative journalism on significant public policy issues. Since 1990, the Washington, D.C.-based Center has released more than 485 investigative reports and 17 books to provide greater transparency and accountability of government and other institutions. It has received the George Polk Award and more than 50 other major journalism awards, including honors from Investigative Reporters and Editors, Online News Association, Overseas Press Club, Society of Environmental Journalists, and Society of Professional Journalists.