Showing posts with label labor. Show all posts
Showing posts with label labor. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Only 1/4 of job-related injuries and illnesses in agriculture show up in federal surveys, study finds

Federal surveys fail to account for  more than three-fourths of job-related injuries in agriculture, according to a study by the University of California-Davis published in the April edition of Annals of Epidemiology.

Researchers at the university counted 74,932 incidents of illness and injuries in crop production in 2011, compared to only 19,700 reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Peggy Lowe reports for NPR. The study also counted 68,504 injuries in livestock work in 2011, while the government reported only 12,300 injuries. Researchers also found that the National Agricultural Workers Survey and the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages reported lower numbers than the study counted.

Lead researcher Paul Leigh said government numbers were lower because they exclude small, family-owned operations. "The other two problems in under-counting are negligence by employers who fail to send in the reports and the large number of undocumented ag workers," Lowe reports. "One recent government survey found that about half of the hired workers employed in U.S. crop agriculture were undocumented, with the overwhelming majority of these workers coming from Mexico."

Government numbers also failed to include "estimates for job-related cancers, chronic pulmonary disease or circulatory diseases," Lowe writes. "Other conditions that weren't counted are asthma from grain dust or neurological problems from long-term exposure to pesticides and chemicals because they won't be diagnosed for 10 or 20 years," Leigh said. (Read more)

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Murray Energy cuts 1,200 Consol retirees' benefits

Placing blame on the Obama administration for destroying the coal industry, Murray Energy, one of the largest coal employers, announced Tuesday that it will terminate health benefits for 1,200 non-union retirees "who worked in mines Murray purchased one year ago" from Consol Energy, reports WTRF in Wheeling, W. Va. Benefits for salaried retirees, including medical, prescription drug and life insurance will end on Dec. 31.

"Murray Energy’s inability to provide these benefits is, in part, due to the destruction of the coal industry, including our markets, by the Obama administration and its appointees and supporters, who have eliminated the livelihoods of thousands of coal miners, and their families, by the forced closing of 392 coal-fired electric power plants in America, now and in the immediate future," the company said in a statement. "Due to these action and devastated coal markets, Murray Energy is unable to support these benefits."

"Murray Energy is making this announcement at this time to allow affected salaried retirees of Consolidation Coal [Consol's former name] the opportunity to make other arrangements," the statement reads. "Over 80 percent of the lost benefits can be made up with Medicare. Also, these former Consolidation Coal retirees have good pension benefits. The company has provided these salaried retirees with information on and access to alternate coverage." (Read more)

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Ken Kesey's novel Sometimes a Great Notion still poses important questions about rural life, work

This statue of Kesey is in Portland, Ore.
Even 50 years after it was published, Ken Kesey's book Sometimes a Great Notion still asks important questions about American rural life: "Should we stick together or go our separate ways? And are those the only two options?" Tarence Ray writes for the Daily Yonder. The novel is about the Stampers, a logging family living in Wakonda, Ore., that declines to be part of a strike against a logging company.

The Stamper family motto, "Never give an inch," is compromised when Hank, one of the family leaders, hesitantly hires his quasi-socialist brother Lee to help meet production quotas and stop the strike. The rest of the book details the family's decent into deeper trouble as Hank's preoccupation with the strike costs him almost everything.

"Kesey's objective is to show the value of one inch: At what point does it cost more—environmentally, mentally, physically—to live the life of a the detached yeoman, the rugged libertarian?" Ray writes. Now fewer than 1 percent of Americans attempt to farm as a result of agricultural policies and corporate farming. "Aquifers are drying up; pipelines carve through the earth and its water sources; chemical spills blanket coastlines," Ray notes.

When confronted with a choice between libertarianism and collectivism, Kesey's story raises a third option: death. This can also be viewed as a compromise between rural and urban society. "Can we afford to keep boxing them [rural communities] into impossible choices and false compromises?" Ray writes. (Read more).

Monday, March 31, 2014

Republican farmers in Calif., Ariz. push their party to get on board with immigration reform

While Democratic-supported immigration reform remains in limbo, concern is growing in California, chiefly among Republican farm owners who are growing frustrated with their own party for stalling a bill that could bring much-needed relief to a business whose workforce relies heavily on immigrants, some of whom are in the U.S. illegally, Jennifer Medina reports for The New York Times. California has more illegal immigrants than any other state, with an estimated 2.5 million. (NYT photo by Matt Black: California's Central Valley relies heavily on immigrants)

Chuck Herrin runs a large farm labor contracting company in the Central Valley, where most of the workers are immigrants and about half are there illegally. Herrin, a lifelong Republican, told Medina, “What we have going on now is a farce — a waste of time and money. We need these people to get our food to market.” About a third of Herrin's workers are over 50, and he has struggled to fill open positions.

"A work force that arrived in the 1990s is aging out of heavy labor, Americans do not want the jobs, and tightened security at the border is discouraging new immigrants from arriving, they say, leaving them to struggle amid the paralysis on immigration policy," Medina writes. "No other region may be as eager to keep immigration legislation alive. The tension is so high that the powerful Western Growers Association, a group based in Irvine, Calif., that represents hundreds of farmers in California and Arizona, says many of its members may withhold contributions from Republicans in congressional races because of the party’s stance against a comprehensive immigration overhaul."

"A report released this month by the Partnership for a New American Economy and the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, two business-oriented groups that are lobbying Congress, said foreign-grown produce consumed in the United States had increased by nearly 80 percent since the late 1990s," Medina writes. "The report argues that the labor shortages make it impossible for American farmers to increase production and compete effectively with foreign importers. While the amount of fresh produce consumed by Americans has increased, domestic production has not kept pace, and the report attributes a $1.4 billion annual loss in farm income to the lack of labor."

All of which has led lobbyists like Tom Nassif, president of the Western Growers, to push Republicans to support the immigration bill. “We’ve had secure borders with Mexico for the last decade; we don’t have that argument at this point," Nassif told Medina. "Now we want people to see the real damage of not doing anything, which is a declining work force, and it means losing production to foreign countries. I can tell you if the Republicans don’t put something forward on immigration, there is going to be a very loud hue and cry from us in agriculture. We are a tremendously important part of the party, and they should not want to lose us.” (Read more)

Friday, February 28, 2014

Civil-rights leaders object to USDA plan to speed up poultry-plant lines and have fewer inspectors

The battle over faster poultry processing lines has reached Congress. At stake is a Department of Agriculture proposal to speed up lines by 25 percent, which critics would increase danger for workers and open the door for weaker inspections, since the proposal also calls for 40 percent fewer inspectors. That would leave the poultry industry responsible for self-monitoring to reduce food-borne pathogens. Critics have also turned the issue into a civil-rights case, saying 39 percent of workers are Hispanic, 16.3 percent are African American, and 7.8 percent are Asian. (Congressional Black Caucus photo: Hilary O. Shelton of the NAACP said conditions at poultry plants are a civil-rights concern)

Both sides are pushing for their voices to be heard, led by the National Chicken Council, which in the last three years has been "spending an average of more than $500,000 annually lobbying Congress, according to lobbying records, five times the group’s average spending in the years before the USDA began working in earnest on the proposed plan in 2011," Kimberly Kindy reports for The Washington Post. "Opponents of the proposed ­changes are trying to play catch-up with the efforts of the poultry industry. The latest push came Thursday when civil rights and worker-safety groups arranged for poultry workers to meet with lawmakers and administration officials to warn against the proposed acceleration of processing-line speeds and to share their accounts of injuries being caused at current speeds."

Workers say increasing the rate from 140 birds a minute to 175 has led to more injuries, led by carpal tunnel syndrome, Kindy writes. The industry counters that injury rates have steadily declined over the past 30 years, and "has also been citing the latest worker-injury data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, showing that [rates of] poultry-worker injuries are in the single digits."

USDA said it hopes to finalize a plan by April, and the Obama administration appears to be ready to support it, Kindy writes. The president’s budget, due for release next week, expects "to reflect government cost-savings arising from reduced inspections, according to several lobbyists and Hill staffers who have been briefed on the issue." (Read more)

Thursday, January 23, 2014

In response to claims of over-regulation, OSHA says it will work to clarify regulations for small farms

After being accused by Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) of "ignoring 35-year-old provisions in fining a small Nebraska farm for improper grain storage," the Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced Wednesday that it "will work to clarify its regulations regarding grain storage on small farms," Aarian Marshall reports for Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter.

Grain-bin accidents and deaths have been a major concern in recent years, with 57 entrapments and 31 deaths in 2010, which has led to a greater call for education and awareness, and while numbers have dropped, there were still 19 entrapments and eight deaths in 2012, Marshall writes. Last year, within weeks of each other, two Iowans were trapped in grain bins, with one dying.

"At issue is language included in appropriations bills since 1976 that exempts farming operations with 10 or fewer employees from regulations enforced with OSHA funds," Marshall writes. "Johanns says many of these small farms have grain storage bins, and use them as part of standard post-harvest activities exempted by the rider."OSHA says most small farms, even those with grain storage facilities, should be exempt from regulations because of the appropriations language. But the agency says it is also working to make the rules clearer for government inspectors and producers alike." (Read more; subscription may be required, but a trial is available)

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Many immigrants are more concerned with being able to work and travel freely than with citizenship

One of the main points of the Senate-passed immigration bill is the idea of a pathway for 11.7 million undocumented workers to gain legal status, and perhaps citizenship, but the bill has stalled in the House. Even the idea of passing legislation to help farm workers and their employers has failed to gain traction.

While Congress deliberates, many undocumented workers say they aren't as concerned with gaining citizenship as they are with being able to work, provide for their families and travel to and from their native lands without fear of losing their jobs or being deported, Julia Preston reports for The New York Times. (NYT photo by John Van Beekum: Alejandra Saucedo, a legal resident, distributes bumper stickers on immigration reform)

Oscar A. Chacon, executive director of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities, told Preston, “For many undocumented people, citizenship is not a priority. What they really care about is a solution that allows them to overcome their greatest vulnerabilities.”

Glendy Martínez, an illegal immigrant from Nicaragua working at a hair salon in Houston, has one child who was born in Texas and three who were born in her native land. She told Preston, “So many people back there depend on those of us who are here. It would be such a help if we could work in peace and go back sometimes to see our children.” While Martínez would like to become an American, what she said she most wants is to be able to work and drive legally and be able to travel from the U.S. to Nicaragua without worry.

Others who have been living and working illegally in the U.S. for years say anything less than full citizenship would be a slap in the face. Yaquelín López, an immigrant from Bolivia who has been in the U.S. for a decade, told Preston, “Citizenship is fundamental. Otherwise we will be 11 million people left in limbo.” Marcela Espinal, from Honduras, agreed, telling Preston, “We have been working hard for our families and paying taxes all these years, and we never lived off the government. Why shouldn’t we be able to vote someday?” (Read more)

Thursday, November 14, 2013

How long is the average commute in your area?

The Census Bureau's American Community Survey in 2011 found that 18.3 million American workers lived in rural areas, with 1.4 million, or 7.1 percent, traveling at least 60 minutes one-way to workNew York Public Radio has compiled an interactive map that shows average commute times in most ZIP codes. To view the map, click here. Here's a piece of it, from Cumberland, Md., to Washington, D.C.:
The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, found that rural commuters spend the most money on gas, averaging $4,272 per year, compared to $3,347 for suburban residents, $2,180 for urban residents, and $1,857 for those who work at home, Quentin Fottrell reports for The Wall Street Journal. (Read more) (National Household Travel Survey graphic)
It takes workers in Maryland longer to get to work than employees in any other state, while people in South Dakota have the shortest commute to work, Melissa Maynard reports for Stateline. The average commute time in Maryland in 2012 was 31.9 minutes, while the average commute in South Dakota was 16.7 minutes. The national average was 25.4 minutes. The number of people driving to work alone rose from 75.5 percent to 76.3 percent from 2008 to 2012. More people are working from home, with the number going up from 4.1 percent to 4.4 percent. (American Community Survey map)

Friday, November 08, 2013

Programs simulate grain-bin entrapments, and how to rescue a victim

Nathan Brown (right) was trapped in a grain bin, waiting to be rescued. Typically, someone pulled into a grain bin has slim chances of survival, but in this instance, Brown was perfectly safe. That's because Brown, the vice president of the Highland County Farm Bureau in southern Ohio, was participating in a simulation as part of the local farm bureau's nationally recognized rescue program, reports Rural Community Building, a service of the American Farm Bureau Federation. "The objective was to provide the fire departments of Highland County with the proper equipment and training needed for grain bin type rescues."

Grain bin deaths continue to rise, and researchers have tried to come up with ways to make the job safer, including using technology. In Highland County they "raised over $44,000 from local business and farmers to support the purchase and outfitting of two emergency response trailers," Rural Community Building reports. In May, 36 emergency personnel were trained in the trailers, which "are completely equipped with the needed equipment for a grain bin type rescue. This equipment includes the rescue tube, safety equipment, ropes, grain removal equipment and hand tools in a single trailer that is ready to respond to a grain bin accident when needed." (Read more) (University of Arkansas graphic)

Illinois has a similar program, called Stateline Farm Rescue, which uses a simulator that has "a large round container filled with corn seed on top. Below it was a floor with small holes to allow the corn to pass through. Below that was the auger. Once turned on, it would move the corn out of the container through the floor," Zach Berg reports for the Journal Star.

To practice getting a victim out of the bin, "trainees were shown how to construct a metal tube around the victim," Berg writes. "The trainees would get into the container with the victim, using simply trays to stand on so as not to sink. The slightly curved pieces of metal that construct the tube are latched on so they can’t be pulled apart, but can still move independently of each other. The trainees pushed down on the pieces until they were down near the victims feet. Once set, it cuts off more corn from coming toward the victim and the digging begins." (Read more)

Dan Neenan, director of the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety in Peosta, Iowa, conducts rescue training all over the Midwest. Dave Newcomb, agriculture-rescue program manager for the Fire Service Institutehas been teaching a class for three years. Ohio State University also has a program. Are there similar programs in your area? (Video: Training by the Ohio Fire Academy)

Monday, October 28, 2013

Murray Energy doubling in size as it buys mines with about half of Consol Energy's coal production

The largest privately held coal company in the U.S., Ohio-based Murray Energy, will approximately double in size with its purchase of five underground longwall mines in Northern West Virginia from Consol Energy Inc., announced Monday. Consol, formerly Consolidation Coal Co., is shifting its focus to producing natural gas, which is competing more strongly with coal as a fuel for power plants.

"Murray will double its workforce, from 3,300 employees to more than 7,000, and boost the company's annual production from 30 million tons of coal to almost 60 million tons," Manuel Quiñones reports for Environment & Energy News. "Murray will also acquire Consol's river-and-dock operations and boost its coal reserves from 859 million tons to more than 2 billion tons, according to a fact sheet."

Robert "Bob" Murray
Murray has been as controversial as it is large. "CEO Robert Murray has been an outspoken opponent of the Obama administration and of regulators, generally, in the wake of the 2007 Crandall Canyon mine collapse in Utah that killed six miners and three rescue workers," Quiñones notes. The five mines being sold employ 2,800 miners, represented by the United Mine Workers of America; most Murray mines are non-union, notes The Charleston Gazette's Ken Ward Jr., who reported rumors of the sale Oct. 17.

"The mines being sold represent roughly half of Consol's annual production [and] are five of the top six underground mines in West Virginia, with nearly 30 million tons of combined production in 2012, according to federal data," Ward reports. For more details, from his Coal Tattoo blog, click here.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Mine-safety agency targets three habitual violators for stricter scrutiny, may pick more

UPDATE, Nov. 26: Coal River Mining LLC's Fork Creek No. 1 mine in Lincoln County, West Virginia, was added to the list for failing to report a series of worker injuries, MSHA says.

Two underground coal mines in West Virginia and one in Kentucky will come under stricter scrutiny because they have a pattern of violating health and safety laws, the Mine Safety and Health Administration announced Friday. More may be added, MSHA said.

The mines targeted are Tram Energy’s No. 1 in Floyd County, Kentucky; Brody Mining’s No. 1 in Boone County, W.Va.; and Pocahontas Coal Co.’s Affinity Mine in Raleigh County, W.Va. "The agency is still reviewing the injury records of several mines to determine if they should be considered for a POV notice based on this screening," MSHA said in a news release.

Federal law has long allowed MSHA to target repeat violators, but agency policy required "disagreements with companies over violations and fines to be resolved before the agency can take such matters into account," Manuel Quiñones of Environment & Energy News notes. That policy has been changed.

The Tram mine, which started production last year, received 120 "serious and substantial" violation notices and 40 closure orders from MSHA during the period that the agency reviewed to find patterns of violation. No mine received more closure orders, and Tram has racked up about $169,000 in unpaid penalties.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

House may act on farmworker immigration bills

The issue of immigration reform—making a way for undocumented workers (including farm workers) to gain legal status and perhaps citizenship—has gained new momentum in Congress after a Senate-passed bill stalled in the House. President Obama and White House staffers called House offices asking to move legislation. The House, leaders of which have said it would not pass an omnibus bill, may attempt to finish two of the bills, H.R. 1773 and H.R. 1772 before 2014, Agri-Pulse reports.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., wrote both bills. H.R. 1773 would allow admit 500,000 temporary agricultural laborers each year. H.R. 1772 would require all employers to use E-Verify, a federal work-authorization program that is now voluntary for non-federal employers.

Goodlatte hopes the House will pass the bills this year. The United Farm Workers and other immigration-reform groups have staged more and more protests across the nation. UFW brought together some California farm workers to deliver 8,000 signed letters advocating reform to Rep. Kevin McCarthy. "As majority whip and California's most powerful Republican, Congressman McCarthy not only has the power but a duty to represent one of California's leading industries," UFW Vice President Armando Elenes told Agri-Pulse.

Not everyone agrees with the proposed reforms. More than "100 groups representing workers and immigrant, civil rights and faith communities wrote to Congress Tuesday to state their opposition to H.R. 1772," Agri-Pulse reports. They said the reform wouldn't fix the immigration system; it would decrease worker protection and threaten the jobs of hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens and authorized workers.

Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said, "Not one single person should lose his or her job because of a government error or an employer's failure to follow the program's rules. Before this legislation is rushed to the House floor, our representatives should listen to the stories of real people who have suffered greatly due to errors in the databases on which E-Verify relies."

Companies would have from six months to two years to comply with the bill, depending on the number of employees. Farmers would have five years to comply with an E-Verify mandate, Agri-Pulse reports. Along with this, the Senate bill (S. 744) passed four months ago will help establish a blue card program for experienced farm workers.

"The new H-2C visa program included in Goodlatte's guestworker bill would allow workers to stay in the United States for up to 18 months, as opposed to the maximum of one year issued to current H-2A visa holders." (Read more)

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Patriot Coal settles with Peabody Energy over health benefits for 3,100 retired miners

"Patriot Coal Corp. said it settled all health and pension-related claims against Peabody Energy Corp. in exchange for key funding, which would help the company emerge out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy by the end of the year," Reuters reports. The long-running feud centered around 3,100 retirees and their families, who stood to lose their health-care benefits.

"In an amended reorganization plan filed with a bankruptcy court on Wednesday, Patriot said Peabody has agreed to provide $310 million, payable over four years through 2017, to fund the health and pension benefits to settle all Patriot and United Mine Workers claims," Reuters reports. "Peabody will also provide about $140 million to Patriot in the form of letters of credit." The settlement will be presented to the bankruptcy court Nov. 6. (Read more)

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Cash-strapped USPS paying futurist $1.6 million to consult on the future of the business

The cash-strapped United States Postal Service has been pushing to limit Saturday mail to parcels, which would eliminate the jobs of many rural carriers and arguably hurt rural areas. And today it is asking its Board of Governors to approve an emergency rate increase. But at the same time, USPS is paying futurist Faith Popcorn $1.6 million to see what the future holds for the business, Sean Reilly reports for the Federal Times.

Faith Popcorn
The service is paying Popcorn's BrainReserve $566,000 "to devise strategies both to slow the 'predictable decline' in stamp use and to 'reinvent and re-imagine' stamp relevance to promote growth," Reilly reports. "While sales of the adhesive-backed paper squares and rectangles have been steadily waning as Americans turn to the Internet to pay bills and stay in touch, they still garner $8 billion annually for the Postal Service, the company says."

USPS spokeswoman Toni DeLancey told Reilly that the stamp project is one of five "task orders" that BrainReserve has so far received. Another project "is an almost $1.1 million endeavor to explore the possibility of using letter carriers to provide paid home visitation services to the elderly and ill," Reilly writes. "Those services could include a daily personal visit and regular checks to make sure that customers are using medical devices or taking prescribed medications, according to the company statement of work for that task order." Popcorn is billing the Postal Service at an hourly rate of $836. Labor fees for other staff involved in the project range from $91 to $334 per hour. (Read more) To view the task orders click here.

Monday, September 23, 2013

More workers on disability, especially in rural areas

The growing number of people going from full-time work to disability pay continues to grow, especially in rural areas, where the closing of factories and mills has left many unemployed and with no other option but to take government benefits, partly because they lack the education needed for jobs that don't involve physical labor. Michael Fletcher reports for The Washington Post that the number of former workers in the U.S. receiving benefits has soared "from just over 5 million to 8.8 million between 2000 and 2012. An additional 2.1 million dependent children and spouses also receive benefits. Federal officials project that the program will exhaust its trust fund by 2016 — 20 years before the trust fund that supports Social Security’s old-age benefits is projected to run dry." (Post graphic from federal data)

Maine, which has the largest percentage of rural population of any state, has been hit hard by the loss of jobs, especially in Penobscot County, an area with 153,000 residents, where well-paying jobs once provided an economic foothold for generations of blue-collar workers. It has "become a place where an unusually large share of the unemployed are seeking economic shelter on federal disability rolls," Fletcher writes. The number of people receiving Social Security disability in the county rose from 2000-2012 "from 4,475 to 7,955 — or nearly one in 12 of the county’s adults between the ages of 18 and 64, according to Social Security statistics."

"In 2004, nearly one in five male high school dropouts between ages 55 and 64 were in the disability program, according to a paper by economists David Autor and Mark Duggan," Fletcher writes "That rate was more than double that of high school graduates of the same age in the program and more than five times higher than the 3.7 percent of college graduates of that age who collect disability." John Dorrer, an economist and former acting commissioner of the Maine Department of Labor, told Fletcher, “The Social Security disability program has become an economic option for many people. As a result of the economic downturn, a whole lot of unskilled males 50 and over were bounced out of the labor force.” (Read more)

In Dec., 2011 it was reported that disability benefit rates were 80 percent higher in rural areas, especially in Appalachia, the deep South and the Ozarks. The national average of adults receiving benefits was 4.6 percent, but in rural areas, that rate was 7.6 percent. There has also been reports of disability judges being too generous with funds, specifically one judge who served in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia that approved payments in all 729 of his decisions in the first six months of the 2011 fiscal year.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Child-labor laws go easy on farmers, despite high death rate among farm workers aged 15 to 17

Jacob Mosbacher, 10, drives a tractor on his
grandparents' farm near Fults, Ill. (AP photo)
"In most states, a girl or boy as young as 12 could work long hours in the broiling summer sun picking the fruits and vegetables for your Labor Day picnic, and it’s legal," Marsha Mercer writes for Stateline. "Federal child labor laws set a minimum work age of 16 for most occupations, but the laws exempt minors who work in the agriculture and entertainment industries."

The law bars workers under 16 from hazardous jobs on farms but "protects workers under 18 in non-farm jobs," Mercer notes. "Teens from 15 to 17 working on farms are four times more likely to die on the job than teenagers in all other jobs, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports."

States also have child-labor laws, and Mercer gives a rundown of them. Mary Miller, child labor specialist in the Washington State Department of Labor and Industry, who has worked in child labor for about 20 years, told Mercer, “I’m constantly skunked that there’s no constituency for child workers. They don’t vote.” Two years ago, the Obama administration abandoned its efforts to "revise the list of hazardous duties children could perform," Mercer notes.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Technology could reduce risk of entering grain bins

Grain-bin deaths could soon be a thing of the past. The owner of a Iowa technology firm "has teamed up with the state’s science and technology apparatus to push the idea of using sensors and remote-control fans to prevent the types of grain-crusting problems that lead farmers to risk their lives by entering grain bins," where 74 percent of reported entrapments result in death, Perry Beeman reports for the Des Moines Register. (Register photo by David Purdy: Scott Haugen shows a bin moisture measuring device)

Scott Haugen, owner of a technology firm in Marshalltown, about 50 miles northeast of Des Moines, told Beeman that systems with sensors and real-time readings can deliver farmers the information they need while they remain in the safety of their farm office. With a computer, Haugen said, he can track grain moisture, sketch the shape of the corn mound in the bin and track temperature, while the computer-run fans keep condensation from forming in the bin, which sends water onto the grain pile and causes a crust.

"That crust is a major reason why farmers enter a grain bin — to 'walk down' the grain, or, in other words, to bust up the crust," Beeman reports. The system can also "track who has entered what area, when they left and whether someone is trying to steal grain." It can also help prevent explosions cause by ignition of grain dust.

Another key to eliminating grain bin-deaths is education. Using a $6,000 grant, a group that includes Haugen is developing a curriculum for Iowa Valley Community College District in Marshalltown and other schools, that will eventually offer two-year degrees in grain management, Beeman reports. "That would create a new job classification around the country: grain management technician." (Read more)

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Lawmakers find some common ground on reforming Postal Service, but not on Saturday mail

Darrel Issa
The Republican chairman and top Democrat on the House committee writing a postal-reform bill are finding some common ground but are still at loggerheads over the Postal Service's wish to limit Saturday mail delivery to packages.

Rep. Darrell Issa of California, "said Wednesday that he’ll strike language to force labor unions to open existing contracts and eliminate no-layoff rules," Lisa Rein reports for The Washington Post. Issa and Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, also agreed to repeal a law that forces the service to pay future health-care costs for retirees in advance, a change that should reduce expenses for current and future retiree benefits "by between $2 billion and $5 billion, from $8.5 billion, committee aides said."

Elijah Cummings
Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe also wants to eliminating Saturday delivery of letters and magazines. That "would save $2 billion a year, but the move is opposed by unions, many lawmakers representing rural districts, and some private mailers," Rein reports. "Issa is calling for five-day delivery and a halt to curbside mail delivery in favor of clustered boxes on street corners, a change he says could save at least $4 billion annually. . . . Cummings, who introduced his own bill Wednesday, opposes both changes because they would cost jobs." (Read more)

Donahoe told the committee, “We need a bridge that gets us all the way to the other side. Half measures are about as useful as half a bridge. We need legislation that, together with our planned changes, confidently enables at least $20 billion in savings by 2016. If not, we go over the edge.” (Read more)

Friday, July 12, 2013

Another Iowan dies in grain bin; newspaper says more education needed on dangers

Most farm-related casualties have declined, but grain bin injuries and deaths remain steady, with 74 percent of reported entrapments resulting in fatalities. Within the past few weeks two Iowa men fell into grain bins. One survived. The other died. On Tuesday 30-year-old Brandon Mullen died in a grain-bin accident in Webster County, in the north-central part of the state. Two weeks ago, 23-year-old Arick Baker beat the odds, surviving five hours in a bin two counties east. (Register photo by Bryon Houlgrave: Bin where Mullen died) 

Thanks to university research and farm-safety groups, there is more knowledge than ever about grain entrapments, but that education hasn't resulted in fewer accidents, with the estimated number of entrapments rising from 24 in 2002 to 57 in 2010, the Des Moines Register notes in an editorial.

According to Charles Schwab, an Iowa State University professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering, "Historic increases in grain prices and production explain the increased numbers of grain bin accidents ... but the numbers of entrapments and deaths also tend to rise with the moisture condition of the grain. That’s because wet grain tends to spoil, and clogs augers on the grain bin floor used to remove the grain. Workers in these situations who enter the bin to break up a clogged auger can be deceived by what looks like the surface if a crust has formed on the top of the grain. Voids can develop below that crust. The worker can fall through and quickly be buried by grain. Emergency techniques have been developed, such as building a dam to prevent grain from filling back as rescuers dig, but rescuers battle a powerful physical force in a race against time."

More education and increased safety measures -- including having someone outside the bin when someone is inside, and turning power off to the auger -- are needed to keep workers from taking unnecessary risks, the Register opines. "Unless or until better equipment is developed for managing grain bins, farm workers will put their lives at risk. Iowa and other Midwest states have stepped up education efforts, but the job obviously is never finished. In addition to continuing to warn farmers about the dangers, however, Iowa should do a better job of documenting the number of grain bin accidents. Action to improve grain bin safety will happen only when the total cost in human lives is known." (Read more)

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Immigration reform heads for slow death in House

"In private conversations, top Republicans on Capitol Hill now predict comprehensive immigration reform will die a slow, months-long death in the House," Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei write for Politico. "Like with background checks for gun buyers, the conventional wisdom that the party would never kill immigration reform, and risk further alienating Hispanic voters, was always wrong — and ignored the reality that most House Republicans are white conservatives representing mostly white districts."

The writers cite this example: "Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) held a town meeting last week where 25 of the 100 people spoke out on immigration — and every single one of them argued for staying clear of anything remotely resembling the Senate-passed bill," which has been a priority for agricultural interests since most U.S. farm workers are believed to be in the country illegally.

House Republicans are meeting today to discuss strategy on bills, but "After holding countless listening sessions, it is clear to these leaders that getting even smaller, popular pieces of reform will be a tough sell," Politico reports. "The House plans a piecemeal approach: a border-security bill this month, maybe one or two items a month in the fall."

But don't look for anything to become law soon. “The belief among House Republicans is that they’re going to do well in the midterms, and that instead of negotiating now from a position of weakness, they should wait until 2015,” an unnamed lobbyist close to House GOP leaders told Politico. “They’ll be stronger in the House and maybe control the Senate.” Also, the writers add, "Most Republicans in the House and Senate just don’t believe Hispanics will vote for them in 2014, 2016 and perhaps ever — simply because they backed immigration reform." (Read more)