Grain elevators, terror plots, and what's actually risky

American Public Media's Marketplace program is taking a look at "the economic legacy of 9/11" this week, and this morning's story focused on security spending in the private sector. Marketplace's Jeff Horwich highlighted an unexpected example: security for grain elevators.

For you city-folk, grain elevators are America's rural skyscrapers. Farmers dump their corn, wheat, soybeans. Trucks haul it out to feed the country. Even though elevators are mostly in the middle of nowhere, Bob Zelenka of the Minnesota Grain and Feed Association says you never know.

Bob Zelenka: It's on the edge of town, so could somebody step in here and adulterate some grain? I guess it might be easy enough to do. But those are the kind of things we've changed -- in terms of locking down, which we never used to do, being aware and vigilant.

9/11 meant new fences, lighting; training on what to do with suspicious requests for ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer that can be used make a bomb. Many grain elevators also store farm chemicals. Zelenka says elevators are now required to track every kernel -- where it came from, and where it's going.

Zelenka: It's been thousands of dollars that elevators have spent. You take that times 14,000 elevators nationwide, and that's a big chunk of dough.

Ohio State professor John Mueller suggests to Horwich that huge investments in security are not worth it for facilities that are very unlikely to be targets. He notes that nearly every terrorist plot that's been foiled since 9/11 has had a government target, and none has targeted the food supply.

There may be a very low risk of grain elevators figuring into a terrorist plot, but that doesn't mean grain elevators aren't deadly. Each year, several workers get engulfed by grain at elevators and storage facilities -- sometimes because they fall into a bin full of grain, sometimes because they're ordered to walk on the grain to get it flowing. Some of these trapped workers are rescued, often after being buried in several feet of grain for hours. Others suffocate. (We've written in more detail about the problem here, here, and here.)

Purdue University's Agricultural Safety & Health Program documents US grain entrapment cases, and noted earlier this year that these events are happening more frequently than they used to:

Based upon the cases documented to date, no less than 51 grain entrapments occurred in 2010. In addition, there was at least one reported incident of a first responder who required medical treatment due to respiratory issues occurring during a rescue and recovery operation. This is the highest number ever recorded; the previous highest number of cases occurred in 1993 when 42 were documented. The 2010 total compared to 33, 34 and 38 cases documented during 2007, 2008 and 2009 respectively.

We know how to prevent grain bin entrapments, and it doesn't take huge infusions of money. Last year, after two teenagers were killed in an Illinois elevator, Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health David Michaels sent a letter to operators of grain storage facilities and reminded them what they should be doing to protect their workers. One of the requirements is to provide employees who enter bins with body harnesses and lifelines (which cost money), and the rest are sensible practices: turn off augurs and other powered equipment when workers enter storage bins, prohibit employees from walking on grain to make it flow, have an observer to watch employees when they enter the bin and provide assistance if necessary, etc.

I hope the grain facility operators who've gone to a lot of trouble to guard against terrorism have invested as much time and money in the security of their workers. Equipment and training for grain-bin safety is one investment that we know saves lives.

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Hear hear. The hypothetical boogeyman of terrorists poisoning our food earns lots of money and concern, yet no serious efforts have been made to reduce the fatalities that occur every year because of grain elevators being extremely dangerous places to work. Heck, I'd think a terrorist would be more likely to get himself killed than to succeed in poisoning America, just based on what happens to experienced grain elevator employees every year. Safety harnesses and tagout procedures should be mandatory. A grant to buy harnesses would go a long way to reducing the deaths, and would cost less than the insurance payouts to the families of those who lose loved ones. Yet this seems to be invisible to the people who decide where to send money, unlike terrorism, which remains visible and much feared despite its relative rarity. Perhaps it's like how there was massive media coverage of the seven astronauts killed on Columbia, but when a NASA minivan went off an embankment, killing the seven employees inside, there was barely a paragraph. We are blase about certain risks, because we face them every day, and so we resist doing anything about them.

By Calli Arcale (not verified) on 07 Sep 2011 #permalink

Grain elevators (and mills) are prone to accidental explosion. The hazard is caused by dust, flour, and corn starch. Elevators are large, imposing structures, and their collapse (accidental or otherwise) makes a big difference to the local landscape. Explosions are usually quite loud, and there are large plumes of dust and smoke. Intentional grain elevator explosions, perhaps at Great Lakes port cities with substantial populations to witness them, could certainly fulfill the aims of a terror campaign.

How much overlap is there between terrorism fear related security and more general food supply security?

For instance, when there is a pathogen in the food suppy, if they are really tracking every kernel of corn, that could be good.

Callie, that's a great example of NASA minivan vs. shuttle fatalities. And people's attitudes towards different risks is indeed often irrational (to say the least!).

Mike, you may have hit on a way to get better action on combustible dust, which is a hazard in many workplaces. Too many employers let combustible dust build up and don't seem concerned about the (very real) possibility that a single spark could turn into a massive explosion - maybe they'd feel more inclined to clean up their facilities if it were pitched as a homeland security issue? Or security rhetoric might help OSHA fast-track its combustible dust standard, which seems to be stuck in the slow lane.

Greg, I had the same reaction to the bit about tracking every kernel of corn - that's exactly the kind of info necessary for tracing and stopping foodborne illness outbreaks, which occur pretty regularly (and not due to sabotage).

By Liz Borkowski (not verified) on 07 Sep 2011 #permalink

When I saw the title of the post, I thought it would be about the high-but-ignored risk of grain elevator explosions through routine negligence vs. the low-but-popular risk of terrorist bombings.

But those are the kind of things we've changed -- in terms of locking down, which we never used to do,

I don't suppose the shift from $2.00 a bushel corn to $7.00 a bushel corn had anything to 'locking down'.MoM

By man of misery (not verified) on 08 Sep 2011 #permalink

To the author and Calli,
I work for an agricultural products manufacturer and know with certainty that grain storage facilities are investing a lot of money to improve the safety of their facilities. Not every facility has upgraded safety features yet, but progress is definitely being made. Improvements are being made in both equipment and policies. It is misinformed to claim that the everyday risks are being ignored.

By Mary Adams (not verified) on 09 Sep 2011 #permalink