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Mourn for the Dead, Fight for the Living


I was a youngster when the first funeral I ever attended was a schoolmate who’d died in a grain storage bin, where he’d slipped and suffocated. I went to the open-casket services with buddies, and we were shocked and silenced by the appearance of a kid like us who’d essentially drowned in corn.

Such tragedies still happen, and federal regulators routinely reduce the punishment in cases of worker deaths in grain storage bins – even when big employers are cited for safety violations, according to recent investigations by the Center for Public Integrity, the Kansas City Star and National Public Radio.

Sometimes, life seems cheap. Especially everyday workers’ lives.

In stories presented this past month, journalists at the Center for Public Integrity – a nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news outfit – zeroed in on a similar accident from 2010 in Mount Carroll, Ill., where a 14-year-old boy and a 19-year-old man were killed and a third worker, 20, barely survived.

A $555,000 fine levied against that employer by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was cut to $200,000, leniency that stunned victims’ families.

The mother of the younger teen said, “For the company, that amount of money doesn’t make any difference at all.”

The bin owner, who declined to be interviewed, also paid a $68,000 fine for child labor violations.

That Illinois tragedy and subsequent outrage at the kid-gloves treatment of an employer was part of an ongoing series on workers’ rights, “Hard Labor.”

Although it’s a few days before the 2013 Workers Memorial Day (April 28), it’s always timely to remember the sacrifices – some routine, some fatal – that workers make on the job.

Annually, about 4,500 U.S. workers die on the job and another 50,000 die from occupational diseases, according to the AFL-CIO. Millions more are hurt and sickened at workplaces.

Further, as the Center for Public Integrity has shown, many other workers are cheated of wages, exploited and abused.

In the next few months “Hard Labor” will occasionally explore these and other ongoing, too-common threats to workers, plus the corporate and regulatory factors that enable the dangers and endanger regular people. Specifically concerning grain-bin deaths, the investigation found that: * at least 179 people have suffocated at commercial grain storage sites since 1984, according to an analysis of OSHA enforcement data; * initial OSHA fines imposed on employers in these cases totaled $9.2 million – but had been reduced by almost 60 percent, to $3.8 million; * the five largest fines, which ranged from $530,000 to $1.6 million, were cut by 50 to 97 percent; and * including farms – most of which aren’t regulated by OSHA – at least 663 people have died in grain entrapments since 1964, according to data from Purdue University. The deadliest year was 2010, when 26 people perished.

The AFL-CIO has assembled material for this month’s Workers Memorial Day, and reminds Americans that although OSHA was founded four decades ago (during a Republican administration), a lot of work remains to be done to ensure compliance, justice and good jobs that are safe and healthy.

The labor federation said, “Many job hazards are unregulated and uncontrolled. Some employers cut corners and violate the law, putting workers in serious danger and costing lives. Workers who report job hazards or job injuries are fired or disciplined. Employers contract out dangerous work to try to avoid responsibility. As a result, each year thousands of workers are killed and millions more injured or diseased because of their jobs."

The AFL-CIO continued, “The Obama administration has moved forward to strengthen protections with tougher enforcement and a focus on workers’ rights,” “But much-needed safeguards on silica and other workplace hazards have stalled in the face of fierce attacks by business groups and the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, who want to stop new protections. We must press forward.”

Bill Knight’s newspaper columns are a rchived at

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.