NPR and the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) released a report last month documenting the dangerous working conditions and lack of oversight in U.S. grain bins. They found that nearly 180 people have been killed in grain entrapment accidents at federally regulated facilities in 34 states since 1984, and that, although the employers were issued a total of $9.2 million in fines, their overall penalties were ultimately reduced by 59 percent.

NPR’s Howard Berkes and CPI’s Jim Morris teamed up for a six-month investigation, Buried in Grain, during which they poured through documents and spoke with workers, government officials, company owners, and industry experts to get to the bottom of the rising number of grain bin accidents and deaths due to entrapment and explosions. Their investigation focused on the numerous workers who have died due to unsafe work environments, and the way the industry’s safety practices are overseen, including how the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) frequently cuts fines incurred by companies who violate workplace safety.

2010 was the worst year on record, with a total of 26 deaths. That year, a tragic incident occurred in which a 14-year-old boy, Wyatt Whitebread, and his co-worker, 19-year-old Alex Pacas, were killed in a grain bin at an Illinois facility. Wyatt, who was underage, had been on the job for two weeks, and Pacas for two days. They, along with 20-year-old Will Piper, were sent into the bin to “walk down” the grain, a practice that involves using shovels and picks to knock down clogged corn that is stuck to the side of the bin. The practice was made illegal in 1996, and the young men were performing the task without training or the use of safety harnesses.

Piper, the only survivor that day, recounted the events to investigators, describing how a second drain hole was opened at the bottom of the bin while the three were working, despite the fact that federal law requires shutdown of power equipment while workers are inside the grain bins:

“It created a quicksand effect, and Wyatt ended up getting caught up in it and started screaming for help. Me and Alex went in after him, and we each grabbed one side of him under his armpits and started dragging him out and got pretty close to the edge of the quicksand, and then we started sinking in with him.”

Berkes reported that the incident required approximately 200 rescuers and lasted into the night. Still, only Piper survived. “Grain rescues are difficult because grain bins are massive – some are four stories high and higher, and twice as wide. They hold thousands of bushels of grain, which exert enormous pressure,” Berkes said.

Although OSHA administrator David Michaels told Berkes and Morris that the agency does everything it can “within the current regulatory framework,” the reporters found that fines were cut 60 percent of the time in 179 grain entrapment cases since 1884, and that more than $9 million in fines were cut by 59 percent. The five largest fines in grain bin death cases were reduced by 50 to 97 percent.

Grain bin accidents rarely bring federal prosecutions, and the NPR/ CPI investigation found that “nearly half of the willful citations issued in fatal incidents since 1984 were downgraded or dropped entirely.”

Alisha Mims is a writer and researcher for Ring of Fire.