INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — Warning: This is going to be one of those liberal, bleeding-heart columns where I take the distasteful (to Conservatives) position that human life is actually more important than business profits. If you’re one of those who find this position somewhere between objectionable and disgusting, you can stop reading now and start writing your response.
If there was any doubt that the prevailing paradigm in American business is “profits before people,” this will remove it. Yes, there are enlightened businesses that go against this paradigm, but overall the paradigm rules.
If you didn’t grow up in the Midwest, and on a farm at that, the term “walking the corn” may evoke images of Stephen King novels or “Field of Dreams,” but the reality is far darker than that. When corn kernels are blown into silos, they tend to stick to the walls and to clump up, which jams machinery and makes moving the corn out of the silo difficult. The way farmers deal with this is to send workers into the silos, which are often on the order of four stories high, to walk on the corn and break up the clumps. Generally these are minimum wage workers and often they are teenagers.
Walking the corn by itself is not too dangerous. Silos filled with corn, wheat or soybeans become death traps, however, when grain cascades out of control, asphyxiating or crushing their victims and creating vortex effects that suck the workers deep into the grain. Since 2007, 80 farmworkers have died in silo accidents; 14 of them were teenage boys. These deaths were almost totally preventable.
Even though the rate of serious injury and fatalities on American farms has fallen, the number of workers dying by entrapment in grain bins and silos has remained steady. The annual number of such accidents actually rose throughout the past decade, reaching a peak of at least 26 deaths in 2010, before dropping somewhat since. Nearly 20 percent of all serious grain bin accidents involve workers under the age of 20.
The New York Times quotes Wayne Bauer, the safety director at the Star of the West Milling Company in Frankenmuth, Mich., which operates grain elevators in five states as saying: “The concept of walking down the grain should be avoided at all costs, and people sending kids into spaces where they have no business being deserve to be fined.”
To understand the connection between these deaths (and likely hundreds more that go unreported) and the profit motive, you have to understand that, if all the machinery were shut off and nothing other than walking the corn was happening, the danger would be minimal.
However, in every case the people running the operation kept grain pouring into the silos, opened the outlet chutes, or both, creating a suction that turned harmless yellow corn into the equivalent of quicksand. Rather than interrupt the operation and have a few hours of down time, they put the workers at risk and were directly responsible for these deaths.
Under Federal Law this sort of safety violation is a misdemeanor, and OSHA typically reduces what little penalties there are. US District Attorneys don’t make the kind of career-advancing splash they love prosecuting misdemeanors, so the Justice Department rarely if ever prosecutes.
In other words, the agribusiness concerns that own the silos prosper and the workers die or nearly die. One 20-year old watched two friends, one 19 and one 14 die — the 14-year old was sucked down so far he was beyond reach. As the corn rose up around the 20-year old, he kept a hand free and tried to clear corn away from the face of his friend whose arms were pinned. Ultimately he was unsuccessful and watched as his friend was buried and suffocated.
For the irony fans among us, if any of those teenagers had thought to bring an animal from an endangered species into the silo with him, the animal’s death would have been a felony under Federal Law.
Last year the Labor Department proposed new regulations aimed at tightening protections for children doing farm work. The proposed regulations would have prohibited children under 18 from working in large commercial grain bins, silos or other enclosed spaces. But the Obama administration, sensitive to Republican charges that it was choking the economy with expensive regulations, pulled back the proposed rules this year in the face of furious farm-state objections.
After all, there are a lot of teenagers out there, but corn is in short supply.
Ed Gurowitz has lived in Incline Village since 1995 and is active in the Democratic Party. He can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. His photograph is courtesy of Danielle Hankinson Photography.