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Purdue University professor William Field has been tracking grain entrapments since 1978. “At some point,” Field says, “we’re going to have to decide whether these incidents are just accidental … [or] approach a criminal level.”

Should farms be regulated?

Corn storage on farms and in commercial structures doubled between 1978 and 2010, climbing from 5.4 billion bushels to a record 10.93 billion bushels, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

With growth has come tragedy: worker entrapment deaths in corn or other grains — wheat, barley, soybeans — hit a recent peak in 2010, a Center for Public Integrity-NPR investigation found. In at least 51 incidents that year, 26 bodies were recovered. More than two-thirds of the entrapments occurred on farms, as did four of six incidents involving workers under 16.

Commercial operations are overseen by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Most farms aren’t — but perhaps should be, some say.

“We’ve got farmers who are building more space and bigger space, and it’s going to cause more issues,” Jeff Adkisson, executive vice president of the Grain and Feed Association of Illinois, which represents commercial operators, said at a grain bin safety conference in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, last fall. “I think it’s time for industry, for government, for all of us to pause and have the conversation again about who is exempt and who is not exempt from some of the standards.”

Adkisson and others in the grain-storage industry have said for years that the bulk of entrapments occur on farms. This is based largely on the work of Purdue University professor William Field, who has put 70 percent of the incidents with reported locations on farms, 30 percent at commercial facilities.

But the Center and NPR found 60 fatal and five non-fatal cases in an OSHA enforcement database that were not included in Field’s studies. All occurred at commercial operations.

In response, Field redid his numbers. He found that 52 percent of the entrapments with known locations took place on farms, 48 percent at commercial facilities.

The number of commercial grain bins in the U.S. has plummeted, from a peak of 15,305 in 1979 to 8,801 at the end of 2012, according to records kept since 1978. Commercial storage capacity rose from 6.99 billion bushels to 10.2 billion bushels during the same period.

On-farm grain storage increased from a low of 10.9 billion bushels in 1997 to 13 billion bushels today, according to records kept since 1987. USDA data show that about 306,000 farms have one or more storage structures, Field said. “Some of those may have 20 structures,” he said. “So we’re talking about several million facilities.”

Randy Gordon, president of the National Grain and Feed Association, said his group and its state affiliates have redoubled safety efforts. “The OSHA standards, we think, are very adequate to address this danger,” he said. “There was an unfortunate spike [in deaths] that occurred but we have hopefully turned that corner now and we’re on the downward trend.”

Farms — most of which are unregulated by OSHA — remain the great unknown: Are their owners doing enough to prevent grain entrapments? Do they know how?

Bringing them into the fold wouldn’t be easy.

During a question-and-answer session at the Cedar Rapids conference, Tiffin, Iowa, farmer James Meade rose.

“The bottom line to me is, don’t pass a law that I won’t obey because I won’t obey it,” Meade said, clearly exercised. “I’ll tell anybody that. I’ll tell the OSHA guy that comes up to my place I’m not going to do it.” The statement drew murmurs of disapproval — and no applause — from the audience.

Meade’s sentiment was echoed by thousands of farmers in 2011 and 2012 in response to a proposed Department of Labor rule that would have limited the work activities of children on farms beyond existing restrictions on hazardous jobs — no driving tractors, for example. Federal law already includes age restrictions for grain-bin work on farms (no one younger than 16) and at commercial sites (no one younger than 18 for certain tasks).

The rulemaking, according to the department’s Wage and Hour Division, was driven by studies showing that “children are significantly more likely to be killed while performing agricultural work than while working in all other industries combined.”

This written comment was typical: “From your bureaucratic overreach in an area of family farming life that the government has NO business being in, you are trampling my rights … YOU don’t love my child any more than I do … You people are nuts!”

Chastened, the department announced the withdrawal of the rule last April. “To be clear,” it said in a statement, “this regulation will not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration.”

Catherine Rylatt, who became a well-traveled grain-safety advocate after her 19-year-old nephew, Alex Pacas, died in an Illinois bin in 2010, has grown weary of employer rationalization and resistance.

At a conference in St. Louis last month, Rylatt tried to impart her safety message to an 18-year-old member of the Future Farmers of America. The young man pushed back, saying he didn’t think farmers would follow even the simplest of rules imposed by government.

“The kid is 18, and he’s already got the attitude of a 60-year-old farmer,” Rylatt said. “It’s scary, is what it is.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story reported that no one under 18 may legally work in a commercial grain bin. In fact, while some work in commercial bins is off limits to those under 18, there is no blanket prohibition against 16- and 17-year-olds working in such facilities. All work in grain bins is off limits to children under 16.

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A journalist since 1978, Jim Morris has won more than 80 awards for his work, including the George Polk...