A 19-year-old farmworker from South Africa suffocated to death in a Delta farm’s grain bin last year because of his employer’s negligence, according to a report and citations from the U.S. Department of Labor.
The teenager was working at Bare Bones Farms in Greenwood on an H-2A visa. A Mississippi Today investigation last year found farms across the Delta are increasingly relying upon white foreign workers from South Africa to work their fields through the visa program.
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The farm was issued a $90,000 fine this week following a federal investigation.
“Well-known safety standards that protect people from the grave dangers of working in grain bins have been in place for decades, and yet Bare Bones Farms jeopardized the lives of its employees by ignoring federal regulations,” said Courtney Bohanno, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) Mississippi director, in a statement. “As a result, the life of a young man who traveled more than 8,500 miles to work in the U.S. ended tragically.”
Bare Bones Farm, which grows soybeans, is owned by Dr. Joseph “Asa” Bennett, an orthopedic surgeon based in LeFlore County. Bennett did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.
In October 2022, the teen, two coworkers and their supervisor climbed into a grain storage bin in efforts to unclog it, according to OSHA. The teen entered the bin first. The group was engulfed in seconds. Emergency responders had to cut a hole in the bin to free the men trapped inside.
All but one was a visa worker from South Africa. Three of them survived, but it took first responders five hours to recover the body of the 19-year-old.
Department of Labor inspectors found that the Greenwood farm “willfully violated federal law by failing to ensure that the employees wore full body harnesses connected to a lifeline while inside the soybean bin, which exposed them to deadly engulfment hazards.”
OSHA investigators found employees were not properly trained on general safety precautions for bin entry. Workers should have turned off equipment before ever entering.
Investigators with OSHA and the labor department fined Bare Bone for several violations, including not having a written respiratory protection program for employees required to wear respirators; and not providing a medical evaluations or fit test or training for workers required to wear respirators as they loaded and unloaded soybeans.
OSHA outlines clear safety plans for workers entering grain bins — usually massive metal silos with peaked roofs — since 1988.
In 2021, 38% of the grain engulfment incidents reported to OSHA turned deadly because employers failed to follow required safeguards, according to the labor department.
Bare Bones Farm requested 11 foreign workers for the 2022 season, according to disclosure documents posted by the Department of Labor.
Among the job qualifications, the job posting listed three months of experience, the ability to obtain a driver’s license and basic literacy and math skills. An average work week was expected to be at least 60 hours.
Bare Bones had requested nine workers the previous season. Both times, it used agents known for finding young, white white men from South Africa on behalf of farm owners.
In last year’s investigation, Mississippi Today found Delta farm owners would often pay the white foreign workers a higher salary than their local counterparts, who were most often Black men.
Local farm workers told Mississippi Today at that time they were charged with training the South Africans, who they said came from farming backgrounds without the massive equipment and safety hazards common on the average Mississippi farm.
Department of Labor documents show that Bare Bones Farms did not request any foreign workers for the 2023 farming season. It’s unclear if the farm may have been barred from doing so, a penalty that can be administered should a farm be found to not offer safe conditions.
Bare Bones has 15 days to respond to the citation notice, according to OSHA. It may also request a conference with the department or contest the findings before a review commission.