Suffocation by Grain: A Terrifying and Preventable Illinois Accident

Mount Carroll, a small, close-knit northwestern Illinois community, endured a nightmarish grain-elevator farm accident last summer that killed two teenage workers, Alex Pacas, 19, and Wyatt Whitebread, just 14, and injured 20-year-old Will Piper. The high school and college students were engulfed by corn inside an elevator owned by Haasbach LLC, and the two who died suffocated under 30 feet of corn.

The rescue effort gives an idea of the magnitude of the fatal mass of corn. Emergency workers had to cut holes in the sides of the grain elevator, releasing thousands of pounds of corn that were removed by semi trucks to another storage location.

The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration heavily regulates safety practices in most grain handling facilities. OSHA specifically prohibits employees from "walking down grain" defined as "where an employee walks on grain to make it flow within or out from a grain storage structure, or where an employee is on moving grain." The regulations include corn within their definition of "grain."

The workers in the Mount Carroll accident were allegedly doing just this prohibited task at the time of their injuries and deaths.

Grain-Entrapment Statistics

Purdue University has studied grain-entrapment cases for over 35 years. While numbers are not exact because of inconsistent reporting, the researchers are aware of 51 U.S. cases (both fatal and nonfatal) in 2010, the highest number they have ever recorded in a year, with victims' ages ranging from 7 to 81. Of these, the most occurred in Illinois with 10 incidents. Corn is the most common grain involved. Nationally, Purdue estimates a 183 percent increase in grain entrapments since 2001.

The 2010 Purdue report links spoiled grain and a higher likelihood of accident. Emphasis on ethanol production has built up high corn stocks in the Midwest, which in turn might raise the levels of older corn stored for longer time periods for later ethanol use.

OSHA Response

OSHA has responded specifically to the Mount Carroll accident and to the increase in grain-facility accidents generally. The agency issued a letter to grain handlers warning them that its enforcement intentions were serious in the grain industry. Locally, OSHA Region V (Illinois, Ohio and Wisconsin) issued a Grain Safety Local Emphasis Program shortly after the accident and has sharply stepped up inspections and citations in the region.

Haasbach LLC was fined $555,000 for 25 OSHA safety citations in the Mount Carroll injuries and deaths. The agency found that Haasbach did not supply body harnesses and lifelines, did not see that equipment was turned off when the workers were in the elevator and told them to walk down the corn. Haasbach is fighting these citations and the matter continues in settlement negotiations.

In addition, Haasbach received $68,125 in civil penalties for violating federal child-labor laws for allowing 14-year-old Whitebread and two other children to work in illegally dangerous jobs and for longer shifts than allowed for minors.

In April, 2011, after several months of increased inspections, the grain-handling industry was added to OSHA's Severe Violator Enforcement Program, known as SVEP. SVEP subjects certain high hazard industries to increased fines and inspections if employers expose workers to "willful" and "repeated" excessive dangers in violation of federal safety regulations. DOL official Richard E. Fairfax commented,

"The inclusion of high-gravity, serious violations as a criteria to qualify for SVEP is

necessary to address the troubling and inexcusable increase in fatalities, entrapments and injuries within this high- hazard industry."

In its ongoing investigation of the Mount Carroll accident, OSHA announced a court victory in May 2011. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois upheld an agency subpoena of related investigation, inspection, report and correspondence records from Haasbach's workers' compensation insurer, Grinnell Mutual Reinsurance. The insurance company must turn over records to OSHA relevant to the case.

Work Accidents

Wyatt Whitebread's family has reportedly filed a lawsuit against the grain operator in Illinois state court. Anyone injured or with a family member killed in a grain-elevator or other work-related accident should consult an experienced personal injury lawyer as soon as possible to learn about available legal remedies, including a possible civil lawsuit and workers' compensation claims, depending on the circumstances.

OSHA safety violations in relation to work accidents like the one in Mount Carroll are likely to be strong evidence of wrongdoing in subsequent legal action.