Accidents, injuries and a death at ADM Decatur raise concerns for workers’ safety
Just months before he was planning to retire, 66-year-old Robert Dautel was killed in an accident at the railyard just off of the Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) West plant in Decatur, Illinois.
On April 11, 2023, Dautel was in a locomotive operated remotely by a trainee. The locomotive struck a line of 25 stationary rail cars, crushing Dautel in the locomotive, according to an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) report.
The investigation found that the rail cars were placed too far forward on the day of the accident. OSHA found ADM liable for not ensuring an environment free of hazards that could cause death or serious injury.
Dautel’s death is just one in a series of accidents at ADM that has drawn scrutiny from OSHA this past year.
And OSHA investigations and reports are only a small number of the safety incidents that have required responses from Decatur’s emergency responders. Data obtained via open records requests from emergency medical services and the local fire department show emergency responders were dispatched to the Decatur plant at least 68 times between January 2023 and October 2023.
Within that time period, emergency medical services were called to the Decatur plant 51 times to handle incidents like employees falling and breaking their legs, passing out or having a stroke. There were 13 calls for fire-related incidents. Most of those incidents do not meet the criteria for OSHA inspections.
The Decatur processing plant is ADM’s North American headquarters. More than 4,000 employees work at the facility, including electricians, grain millers, equipment operators and technicians and more. The operations cover 1,125 acres in northeast Decatur.
In ADM’s code of conduct, the company claims it is “committed to honoring the rights of our employees, as well as complying with all applicable wage and hour laws in all areas of the world where we have operations. In addition, ADM expects our business partners to treat their employees with dignity and respect, and follow local employment laws.”
ADM is a multinational company with around a hundred billion dollars in revenue a year. It uses crops to make ingredients for food, beverages and supplements, and according to its website, produces products ranging from feed additives to amino acids.
Despite ADM’s public pledge to ensure worker safety, OSHA has investigated the conditions at the plant five times this year alone because of accidents causing injury or death among its employees. OSHA has fined ADM almost $350,000 so far for a total of six violations, most of which stem from an explosion in April.
Among the accidents, OSHA investigated:
- On Jan. 13, 2023: OSHA opened an investigation on ADM but didn’t disclose details. ADM was fined $9,375.
- On April 11, 2023: Robert Dautel died after being crushed by a locomotive. OSHA fined ADM $15,625 for Dautel’s death, but ADM contested the penalty on Oct. 19.
- On April 20, 2023: Just nine days after the rail car accident, an explosion in a grain elevator landed three employees in the hospital. The cause of the explosion was undetermined as of Dec. 8. OSHA has fined ADM $324,796 for the explosion, and ADM contested on Oct. 31.
- On Aug. 28, 2023: A large fire that broke out in a processing tank sent two firefighters to the hospital. Crews were on the scene for 12 hours before the fire was under control.
- On Sept. 10, 2023: Another explosion occurred, injuring eight employees. According to a report from the Decatur Police Department, four of the injuries were life-threatening, and five of the injured people were taken to a hospital via ambulances and medical helicopters.
Decatur police records show that out of the four life-threatening injuries, one victim had estimated 40% body surface area burns, burns to his airways and swelling and soot around his nasal cavities. Another victim had 30% body surface area burns and possible damage to their airway from the explosion.
The other two victims also had possible damage to their airways from the explosion and generalized burns on their face and hands. The victim with a non-life-threatening injury had flash burns to their face and a possible airway collapse.
The City of Decatur Police Department reports from the incident included a synopsis of interviews from the victims.
“He was standing near the train tracks when the next thing he knew he heard a loud boom and … was thrown due to the explosion,” the report said. “He then began running away from the explosion site … He felt a burning sensation to his face and minor laceration to his arm.”
Another victim told police, “He was in the office building when he smelled the odor of hexane gas … the last thing he remembered was exiting the building.”
Other victims were unable to give complete statements because of their life-threatening condition, according to the report.
While this year’s accidents drew intense media attention, over the last 15 years there have been at least three other deaths and four employee injuries at the Decatur plant separate from the events in 2023 that have been reported to OSHA.
- On May 17, 2018: An employee suffered multiple fractures to his skull, ribs, cheek and more after he was struck in the head by a filter, causing him to fall approximately six feet off an elevated surface. OSHA initially fined ADM $10,163 for the accident, but ADM contested. The fine was reduced to $6,500.
- On March 6, 2017: An employee was injured after falling down an elevator shaft. He fractured his skull and was hospitalized for the injury.
- On April 29, 2016: An employee was killed while performing disassembly and cleaning work on equipment due to not turning off or locking out the equipment.
- On Feb. 10, 2008: Two employees were killed from carbon monoxide poisoning, and two were injured. The event was ruled an accident.
Kyle Bollinger is a business agent at Teamsters Local 916, a union that represents some ADM Decatur employees. Bollinger said the Teamsters union members at the ADM plant primarily work in the facility’s power plant and not at the other facility.
Bollinger said the Teamsters Union members haven’t experienced accidents causing injury in recent years because the power plant side of the facility has extensive safety precautions and standards. But Bollinger said he has heard from his members that severe injuries occur regularly in other parts of the plant. He said ADM has “safety by convenience.”
“The company claims to be a very safety-oriented company, but when employees and members of the union bring concerns to them, nothing gets done,” Bollinger said.
He said his union members climb around 300 ladders throughout the plant, and there was a push to get the ladders inspected to improve safety. He said only eight ladders were fixed, and ADM claimed there weren’t any more improvements to be made.
Representatives from the union that represents some of the workers at the other facility did not return repeated calls and emails for comment.
The Decatur plant isn’t the only ADM facility in the country to see potentially unsafe working conditions. Nine deaths and 22 injuries have occurred in the last 15 years at ADM plants across the country, according to OSHA records. The food processing corporation has received 140 OSHA violations in this same time, totaling $878,211 in fines.
ADM refused to answer questions concerning the accidents that have occurred at its plants and instead referred to the press releases it published after each accident.
Employee killed in rail accident on verge of retirement
Jenna Apps is one of Robert Dautel’s three children. Dautel was planning to retire this year, Apps said. She said her mom had just convinced him to retire so they could spend the rest of their lives together.
Months after his death in April 2023, Apps said the family is still grieving.
“This was a dad, this was a husband, this was a grandpa, this was a brother, this was a son,” Apps said. “His mother is still alive. She's in her 90s, and this was hard [for her].”
Apps said she would hear her father tell her mom how unsafe the working conditions were at the plant. The accident shocked Dautel’s family because Apps said he was known for being cautious and sticking to the rules.
“I just don’t think he ever thought it would be him because he was so on the rules and paying attention,” Apps said. “He would make these comments all the time to my mom, that that place is dangerous and people really need to be careful.”
Growing up, Apps said after her dad would come home from working at the East plant, his pants would harden and could stand on their own from being so dirty. She said ADM has had a bad reputation among employees, and people would joke that “ADM stands for another dead man.”
Apps said one of the most frustrating parts of her father’s death was how simple it would’ve been for ADM, a multi-billion dollar corporation, to prevent the whole incident.
Apps said ADM didn’t take the time to purchase a can of spray paint to paint a line on the tracks that could’ve saved her father’s life.
“You are a billion-dollar company, and you can’t follow simple safety rules … You couldn't come up with the person or whatever you needed to make that happen,” she said.
Dautel grew up and raised his family in Morrisonville, Illinois — a small town in southern Illinois with a population of just over 1,000 people. Apps said the whole town mourned his death.
Dautel worked at ADM for 22 years, but Apps said his life — his friends, family, memories — was in Morrisonville. Dautel will always be a part of Morrisonville. His close friends planted a tree in a small park in the center of the town to commemorate Dautel’s life.
Apps said she hopes ADM takes action to prevent further injuries and fatalities from impacting more families like hers.
“If anything out of this happened, please make it a lesson,” she said. “Go over your safety protocols, go over all your safety procedures, make sure that you’re keeping up, that you’re doing what you can to keep everybody else safe.”
This story was originally published on CU-Citizen Access.