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Associated Press
EMS crews respond to the June 24 grain elevator blast that killed a worker at the Union Mills Co-Op in Union Mills.

Deaths in the workplace are no accident

OSHA warnings of grain bin, other dangers disregarded

The deaths of two workers in grain bins last month at the Union Mills Co-op and in Veedersburg are even more tragic because they could have been prevented.

These deaths were not accidents, as many media reports have asserted. The hazards associated with grain bin work, such as the high risk of explosions or suffocation, are well known and well documented. Employers’ failure to address these hazards and prevent these deaths is unconscionable.

Though the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration had never inspected the Union Mills plant, the agency has warned for years – as recently as two weeks ago in Illinois and Wisconsin – about the hazards associated with grain bin work.

OSHA sent letters to every grain facility in the country about how to protect workers in grain bins. But those letters weren’t enough.

“We’d get called in after a worker was entrapped in grain, and you’d see my letter posted on the wall, so you know they didn’t always work,” OSHA chief David Michaels said at a policy summit last year.

Yet grain bin operators continue to put their employees in harm’s way.

A report last month from Purdue University found that a record number of workers were killed in grain bins in 2010; that year, 26 workers were killed and 57 were trapped. Since 1964, more than 660 farmers and workers have died in more than 1,000 grain entrapments, a recent investigation by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity revealed.

Given the huge amount of publicity given to grain bin deaths recently, there is no chance that grain bin operators were unaware of these hazards.

If someone drives recklessly on a residential street and kills a pedestrian, we treat this as a negligent homicide. It is time that we started treating entirely preventable workplace incidents the same – not as unforeseeable “accidents.” Hard-working employees deserve to earn a paycheck without having to risk their life. Workers at grain facilities – and in all industries – have a human right to a safe and healthy workplace.

Tom O’Connor is executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. He wrote this for Indiana newspapers.

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