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Inadequate enforcement of federal oversight leaves workers vulnerable

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is the federal agency primarily charged with the creation and enforcement of legislation related to workplace safety and health. When this agency functions properly, workers directly benefit from its efforts. Negligent employers are held accountable for their actions through agency action and conscious employers are informed by the agency about how to keep their workers safe. Similarly, when this agency fails to utilize its power effectively, workers suffer.

The media has recently reported about the rising rates of workplace death among farm workers assigned to work within grain storage silos. As a result of these preventable deaths, OSHA has responded by citing negligent farming operations with fines. One would assume that such action would inspire other farming operations to better ensure the safety of their workers. However, the urgency of this necessary action has been mitigated by the fact that OSHA is routinely slashing the fines it levies against these operations.

In one recent example, three young men including a 14-year-old boy were paid to walk down the grain in a corn silo located on a corporate farm. Proper precautions were not taken on the part of the farm's management and both the boy and one of the very young men died. A now-retired OSHA administrator admitted that "This is one of the most egregious cases we've seen in a long time."

Justifiably, OSHA responded by citing the corporate farming operation with just over $500,000 in fines. However, the agency later cut the fine by more than $250,000. This is not an uncommon occurrence. In fact, 60 percent of OSHA fines related to grain bin deaths have been cut significantly over the past 20 years.

Fines are meant to hold negligent employers accountable and to deter other operations from placing their employees in similar danger. At present, OSHA is falling down on the job when it comes to the safety of grain bin workers by undercutting fines meant to send a strong message in the wake of tragically preventable fatal accidents.

Source: National Public Radio, "Fines Slashed In Grain Bin Entrapment Deaths," Howard Berkes and Jim Morris, Mar. 24, 2013

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