Five years ago, when Ron Hayes’ 19-year-old son, Patrick, was working as a grain handler at Showell Farms in De Funiak Springs, Fla., he was assigned the task of “walking down the corn”—scraping the inside walls of the grain bin. As Patrick knocked down the corn, 60 tons of it fell, suffocating him to death.
After an Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigation into Patrick’s death, agency investigators determined that Showell Farms was guilty of six “willful” safety violations and recommended that the company pay more than $500,000 in fines. But OSHA’s area director later reduced the fine to $42,000, citing a lack of clarity about whether OSHA’s standards applied.
Ron Hayes and his family learned of the reduced fines and citations from a local news broadcast—despite repeated requests to OSHA for information. “When I saw it on TV that day,” he recalls, “I was just heartbroken.”
The ordeal inspired Hayes to reform the way OSHA handles cases such as his. He quit his job as an X-ray technician and together with his wife, Dot, founded Families in Grief Hold Together (FIGHT). The group, which helps families who have had similar run-ins with OSHA, has a nationwide network of attorneys available to do pro bono work. Over the past two years, FIGHT has helped more than 300 families in 45 states.
In 1995, OSHA admitted to mishandling Patrick’s case and revised its safety standards for workers in grain elevators and mills. But Hayes has continued to push the agency: After a request for documents relating to Patrick’s death yielded only sanitized copies, Hayes sued OSHA in federal court. A U.S. District Court judge is currently reviewing all 1,030 documents in the case to determine whether any were withheld improperly. (Eugene Seidel, the U.S. attorney representing OSHA, refused to comment on Hayes’ lawsuit.)
A favorable ruling for Hayes could result in OSHA being monitored for the next five years to ensure it complies with information requests. And if the judge rules against him? Hayes says he has approximately 100 families ready to file a class-action suit against OSHA to require the five-year monitoring period. “Pat’s gone,” he says. “But maybe I can save someone else’s kid.”