Michele Gran can clearly remember telling her son not to go to work on Aug. 14 of last year.
Landon Gran, 18, suffered a sore back from farm work at a nearby operation two miles south of the Grans’ farm in rural Norseland. Michele had wanted her oldest child to take a break, maybe visit a chiropractor, but Landon had told her he would stop by his employer just to see if they needed any help.
What happened after that is a little unclear, according to Michele.
They know Landon was cleaning out a grain bin almost empty of corn. They know he got his legs stuck in a sweep auger, a piece of equipment at the bottom of a grain bin resembling a really long drill turned on its side that pushes grain through to a dispenser. And they know Landon must have spent hours inside that bin, bleeding to death, before he was found.
“He was ground up,” Michele said, crying. “I’m just saying it bluntly. This was a gear-driven auger which wrapped him right into it. How long our son sat there crying for help, for hours, we don’t know.”
Landon’s death is one of at least eight grain bin or grain silo-related fatalities in Minnesota since June. It’s an unusually high number in such a short period of time, and the recent spate of deaths is causing lawmakers to pay attention.
Lawmakers and state officials plan to tackle more farm safety measures during the Minnesota Legislature’s 2020 session, which starts in less than a month. Advocates such as Michele Gran say now is the time to put serious regulations in place to prevent more fatalities in the future.
“It’s unfair that my child had to suffer through that, that my family is suffering now because he’s gone,” she said.
It’s no secret farming is dangerous work. Farm workers are 800% more likely to die on the job than in other professions, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The majority of farm-related fatalities are due to tractor rollovers, not grain bins.
Yet grain bins have long posed a hazard to farmers, especially as many farms are growing and storing more and more corn and soybeans during the past few decades. And experts see grain bin-related deaths as entirely preventable.
Any farmer worth his or her salt knows a worker is never supposed to go into a grain bin. But some do anyway — to break up caked-on grain, or dislodge a potential plug in the storage system. Workers can easily fall through grain, getting engulfed by crops and dying due to asphyxiation, either from the grain itself or from toxic air pockets of carbon dioxide.
Though agricultural groups and labor officials stress educating farmers about grain bin safety, grain bin-related accidents have been relatively stable over the past few years after increasing and plateauing through the 2000s.
An annual report from Purdue University’s Agricultural Safety and Health Program shows 61 incidents that took place inside grain storage or transport facilities in the U.S. in 2018. Of those, 30 involved workers entrapped in grain, while 11 were equipment-related. The report shows 27 out of those 61 incidents were fatal, on par with the average yearly number of these kinds of deaths in the U.S.
That’s why the sudden jump in grain bin-related deaths in Minnesota is so jarring.
Aside from Landon Gran, 74-year-old Rodger Slater died Sept. 10 after he was trapped in a soybean bin on his Sibley County farm about 5 miles west of Belle Plaine. Emergency personnel cut out the side of the grain bin to retrieve Slater, but he was pronounced dead at the scene.
Jim Welscher, 68, of Caledonia, died after he was trapped in a grain bin July 24.
Gregory Fleck, 64, of Glencoe, died Aug. 23 after he was trapped in a grain bin.
Gerald Chisholm, 62, of Gary, in northwestern Minnesota, was found dead Dec. 5 inside a grain bin.
Three people died after a grain silo accident Dec. 21 in Brandon, which is in the western part of the state. Curt Boesl, 47, and his 11-year-old son, Alex, were working on top of a grain bin when they were overcome by toxic fumes. Another family member called 911 and Curt’s brother, Steve Boesl, 49, tried to climb inside the bin to save his brother and nephew but succumbed to the same fumes.
Steve Boesl died at the scene. Curt Boesl died the next day. Alex Boesl survived for six days before he was taken off life support and died.
There could be even more grain bin-related incidents but such accidents are difficult to track, as many occur on smaller farm operations that fall outside of OSHA jurisdiction.
A 2015 Star Tribune analysis found 19 grain bin-related deaths between 2004 and 2014. And the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry found three grain bin-related deaths between 2010 and 2018 on farms with 10 or more workers.
Researchers use publicly available information, such as accident reports, newspaper articles and obituaries to compile what information there is, but Purdue University academics estimate about 30% of all injuries in “agricultural confined spaces” go unreported.
“This is a priority issue for us to have hearings, to raise awareness,” Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen said.
Opt-in or regulate?
Local lawmakers Sens. Nick Frentz and Rich Draheim visited the Gran farm with Petersen in November once Michele publicly called for more farm safety mandates in Minnesota and across the nation.
Michele wants a variety of mandated measures, such as two people working on a grain bin at all times, cages on augers and mandatory safety harnesses, among other measures. She’d like to see OSHA officials have more jurisdiction over farms with 10 or fewer workers, which are largely exempt from more stringent farm regulations based on the theory that those kinds of farms are family operations where farmers will take extra care. That extra jurisdiction would include investigating every accident and death that took place.
The agricultural industry, however, has largely pushed back against mandated safety measures over the years. Former President Barack Obama’s administration brought forth a package of farm safety ideas in 2011 that included prohibiting people under age 18 from working in large grain bins or other storage containers, among other things.
Even though the proposal wouldn’t have affected small-farm operations — those with 10 or fewer workers — farm groups and Midwest states vehemently opposed the new regulations, arguing they would economically hurt farm operations and impede teens from learning about farming. Federal officials backed off and killed the proposal.
Petersen said he would expect a similar backlash against other regulations.
“Some of that is really well meant but it doesn’t work in every situation,” he said.
Ag industry experts say more education and training opportunities are needed for farmers who may know grain bins are dangerous but don’t understand what not to do around them.
State officials also want more information on why there’s a sudden increase in deaths. Petersen attributes the growing rate of accidents to the increasingly stressful industry pressures put on farmers over the past few years.
“I think more people are storing grain on farms, and I do think stress is playing a lot into the accidents that we’ve had,” he said.
Frentz and Draheim say there may be a compromise between the two views.
Frentz, a North Mankato Democrat, plans to introduce legislation that would create a voluntary grant program to allow farmers to buy safety equipment for grain bins such as harnesses and auger cages. He initially proposed a one-time allocation of $500,000, but state officials would rather that proposal be combined with a similar program for tractor rollover bars that began in 2017 but hasn’t been continuously funded.
“We think there’s room for everyone here,” Frentz said.
Petersen said the increased program could also attract more private contributions from agricultural companies and organizations.
Draheim agrees. The Madison Lake Republican said he plans to introduce farm safety legislation of his own and may support Frentz’s proposal, depending on the language. But Draheim said he is reluctant to put more regulations on farmers already hurting from low commodity prices and U.S. trade conflicts with other countries.
“There’s a lot of people working on it, so it’s not like we haven’t done anything as a state,” Draheim said. “But that doesn’t make those families that have lost a loved one feel any better.”
Lawmakers and state officials alike agree grain bin safety will likely be a top agricultural priority in the Legislature this year. While Michele Gran is pleased lawmakers are taking this seriously, she plans to push for more safety regulations at the Capitol.
Though she doesn’t think of herself as a public speaker, she believes Landon would want her to fight for more safety measures on the farm.
“I’m doing this so one day I get a phone call from another mom saying, ‘Thank you, my son’s life or my daughter’s life was saved because of you,’” she said.
And Michele doesn’t want another mother to be haunted by the same nightmares she has. Michele said she dreamed last week of Landon calling out for her help while he was trapped inside the grain bin.
“This should not have happened,” she said. “I’m never going to call it an accident. This was an incident. This was preventable. It should never be considered an accident, not when they’re preventable.”