Add grain elevators to list of most dangerous workplaces

Over the past three decades, more than 680 Kansans have been killed on the job. Nearly one in 10 died while working at a grain elevator. The 60 grain elevator deaths include three painters who fell 125 feet from the top of an elevator in Jetmore in 1982.

They include four members of a cleaning crew that was in the DeBruce Grain elevator south of Wichita when it exploded in 1998.Forty-eight of the workers who died in elevators were doing jobs classified by OSHA as "grain and field bean" work. According to OSHA, it's the most dangerous job you can have if you work in Kansas.

The DeBruce explosion, which killed seven and injured 10, made national headlines and resulted in a substantial OSHA fine.

But all of the other grain and field bean workers who have died since 1980 were killed in single-fatality accidents. Nearly half died when they were engulfed by grain.

"It's just one of the most dangerous places in the world to work," said Ron Hayes, who became a workplace safety advocate after his 19-year-old son, Patrick, was buried by 60 tons of corn while working in a Florida grain bin in 1993.

"You've got all these electrical contacts," Hayes said. "You've got all these gears and chains and belts.

"And then there's the dust. When you go into these bins and grain elevators, sometimes you can't even see. It's a white-out almost."

Hayes said he began researching workplace safety after becoming frustrated with his inability to get information about his son's death.

He said he now thinks most people hired by grain elevators don't realize the dangers of the job they are taking.

"Call 100 people and ask them, 'Do you think corn or soybeans would be dangerous to work with?' " he said. "They're going to say no. But it's very, very hazardous."

The second-most-dangerous job in Kansas is "sewer, pipeline, and power line construction" worker, OSHA records show. Workers in that category accounted for 32 workplace deaths from 1980 through 2009.

The third- and fourth-most-dangerous jobs are "highway and street construction," with 28 deaths, and "roofing, siding, and sheet metal" work, with 25.

A review of Kansas' grain elevator deaths shows that the seven men who died at DeBruce were the only workers killed by an explosion.

OSHA records show that 21 of the workers were buried under grain, five others were crushed by equipment, five died in falls and three were electrocuted.

Hayes said when the coroner couldn't answer detailed questions about his son's death, he began to research what happens when a person is covered by grain.

Death comes from asphyxia, he said, when the pressure of the grain prevents the victim's diaphragm from contracting. Most workers, he said, die with their hands reaching upward.

"It took them five hours to dig him out," he said of the recovery of his son's body. "His ears were packed with corn dust. His nose, his eyes, were packed with corn dust. It was just packed solid. They had to dig it out."

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