Washington, DC — Six deaths from a Kansas grain elevator explosion in late October could have been prevented by adherence to safety rules, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The Occupational Safety and Health Administration missed a golden opportunity to send that message when it plea bargained down a Colorado grain elevator death and child labor violations just weeks before. As a result of the Colorado-OSHA plea deal, the industry was not put on notice that executives would face prison time and heavy fines for willful violations of job safety rules.
On October 29, 2011, a grain elevator explosion killed six workers, most in their early 20s, at the Bartlett Grain Co. in Atchison, Kansas. The last time OSHA inspected the facility was more than 5 years earlier.
On August 5, 2011, without public announcement, the Tempel Grain Elevators Co. pled guilty to lesser charges in the 2009 death of a teenage grain elevator worker and 77 other child labor violations. In the Tempel case, OSHA originally proposed $1.6 million in fines and pressed criminal prosecution of responsible executives for the Haswell, Colorado incident in which two teenagers were sent into the elevator and then were engulfed by grain, killing 17-year old Cody Rigsby by asphyxiation.
In the plea deal and accompanying administrative settlement with OSHA –
- The company was placed on five years of criminal probation but no executive will be held responsible;
- The proposed $1.6 million fine was reduced to $50,000 plus the company must buy an annuity to compensate Cody’s family; and
- The company must finally install safety harnesses in its grain elevators.
“With the Tempel case, OSHA could have fired a shot heard throughout the grain industry but rather than a bang, this case ended with an enforcement whimper,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing to the press release that OSHA issued back in 2009 with a quote from Labor Secretary Hilda Solis pledging “This situation must be addressed swiftly and completely.” “OSHA should not be surprised that the industry does not take its enforcement seriously when the most blatant violators can get away with slaps on the wrist.”
The last time OSHA undertook an industry-wide enforcement initiative in the grain industry was 1977, following the death of 65 people in 20 grain elevator explosions. At Tempel Grain Elevators, for example, a planned OSHA inspection in 2004, five years before the Rigsby fatality, found multiple violations, most of them classified as “serious.” All were resolved via “informal settlement” for a total of a $1,500 fine.
“As the Tempel plea deal shows, on-the-job deaths of workers – even children – remain just a cost of doing business in the U.S.,” Ruch added. “Until OSHA pursues these cases to the end with the grave seriousness they deserve we can expect these tragedies to recur.”
Look at the Tempel plea bargain
See the OSHA press release vowing tough action on Tempel
View the pattern of informal settlement at Tempel