Workers lose legs, gain support after accident at Toledo grain co-op

PHOTO BY GEOFF STELLFOX/THE GAZETTE — Miguel Tirado poses Aug. 25 for a portrait after a physical therapy session at his temporary home in Iowa City. Tirado, 26, was fixing a grain conveyor belt in Toledo on June 30 when the machine was turned on and Tirado fell in. Both his legs have been amputated above the knee.

When Miguel Tirado’s legs were pinned this summer in a conveyor belt at an Iowa grain co-op, he didn’t think he’d make it home to his wife and daughters 1,300 miles away.

“I thought I was going to die there,” said Tirado, 26, of Hidalgo, Texas.

For more than 20 minutes on June 30, Tirado and his friend and co-worker, Andres De Leon, 26, remained in the drag chain conveyor belt — their legs mangled by the steel machine — until paramedics arrived to airlift the men to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City.

There, surgeons removed both of Tirado’s legs and De Leon’s right leg.

The incident, which ended the men’s careers as millwrights and jeopardized their ability to support themselves and their families, is being investigated by Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration and is the subject of a lawsuit in Linn County.

PHOTO VIA LINN COUNTY DISTRICT COURT — This photo, from a lawsuit filed in Linn County District Court, allegedly shows the conveyor belt where Miguel Tirado and Andres De Leon were injured June 30, 2023, at the Mid-Iowa Coop in Toledo, Iowa.

The case also highlights a system in which vulnerable workers — including those without friends or families nearby to help them or who speak another language — do some of the most dangerous jobs in Iowa’s construction and agriculture sectors.

“This kind of story is absolutely heartbreaking,” said Robin Clark-Bennett, director of the University of Iowa Labor Center. “These types of accidents are far too common in construction center and in ag sector as well.”

Forty-one people died while working in Iowa’s agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting sectors from 2019 through 2021, the most recent data available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of those fatalities, the bulk were transportation incidents, but 10 deaths were due to contact with objects or equipment.

About 1,500 people were sickened or injured in ag sector incidents in Iowa between 2019 and 2021. In the construction sector, 22 people died between 2019 and 2021 and 7,200 were sickened or injured, the bureau reported.

Iowa companies recruit in Texas

Tirado and De Leon are U.S. citizens who attended Valley View High School in Hidalgo, a city of about 14,300 just across the Rio Grande from Mexico. They played sports, including track and football, and took welding classes offered by a technical school.

After graduation in 2015, Tirado went to work for Buresh Building Systems, a Hampton, Iowa, company that provides construction services to agricultural, biofuel, industrial and commercial industries. Buresh helped Tirado get welding certification, he said.

Tirado, in 2021, went to work for Coast 2 Coast Millwright LLC, and De Leon joined him in September 2022. Records with the Iowa Secretary of State show the company was incorporated in January 2021. The Coast 2 Coast Facebook page shows photos of men in hard hats working on warehouses, garages and grain storage buildings in Iowa and neighboring states.

“We would build these big towers, which require a lot of bolts,” Tirado said of his work there. “We would build conveyors. New conveyors, new installs. We would sometimes repair those conveyors since we knew how to work with them since we had built them. We operate a lot of machines, like the forklifts, man lifts, big excavators.”

The Gazette reached out to Coast to Coast owner Adalberto Cantu Jr. for comment and he texted back: “No can do until everything is over with.”

Friends trapped in machine

On June 30, Tirado and De Leon were installing a ventilation system in the basement of a tower located at the Mid-Iowa Cooperative in Toledo. Mid-Iowa, a farmer-owned co-op that provides grain management, marketing, insurance and feed, has 13 locations in East Central Iowa.

The men had finished their job and were preparing to leave. To climb over a small concrete wall, they had to step on the metal cover of the drag-chain conveyor belt.

“The second we stepped on it, it was the moment they turned it on,” Tirado said.

The metal lid flew out from under their feet and Tirado stepped back onto the conveyor chain, which pulled his legs into the machine.

“My friend came up, he tried to save me and lift me up,” Tirado said. “His legs got caught. It broke one of his legs and the other one, it almost broke it off, but they were able to save one of his legs.”

The machine was turned off and Tirado tried to give others directions for how to use tools to release his and De Leon’s pinned legs. The operator suggested they stay put until paramedics arrived in case pressure from the machine was preventing them from bleeding to death, Tirado said.

“I stayed there for about 20, maybe 30, minutes,” he said. “I passed out before the paramedics got there.”

What went wrong?

Iowa OSHA visited Mid Iowa’s Toledo site July 5 for an unscheduled safety inspection, online records note. The inspection notice says there were amputations involved in the incident. The case is still open.

Iowa OSHA has 21 enforcement inspectors who conducted 626 inspections across the state in 2022. Some inspections are done in response to complaints or referrals and others are “unannounced visits to various employers across numerous industries guided by federal statistics in an effort to address more hazardous work practices,” said Diane McCool, agency spokesperson.

T. Renee Anthony, a professor of occupational and environmental health in the UI College of Public Health, has no connection with this investigation. But upon hearing the details of the incident, she said it likely happened because of a failure to make sure the conveyor belt could not be started while workers were in the area.

“It’s a classic lockout/tagout,” she said. “If you’re working on a system where there are hazards, all the equipment needs to be locked out so nobody can start it. After everybody is confirmed to be safe, you take the lock off and the system can be energized. It’s a tedious process, but this is the exact reason why this system is in place.”

Iowa OSHA has six months after an incident to file any violations.

Tirado, Karla Ortiz Rodriguez, his wife; and De Leon filed a lawsuit last month against Premier Millwright Inc., of Cedar Rapids; the Mid-Iowa Coop and Mid-States Millwright & Builders, of Nevada.

They allege Premier, which originally installed the conveyor, was negligent in not ensuring the lid was clamped on securely and not installing an emergency shut-off cable the length of the conveyor belt. Mid-States, a general contractor that hired Coast 2 Coast to install the vent system, should have made sure the conveyor couldn’t be started while Tirado and De Leon were working in the area, the suit states.

The lawsuit alleges the co-op failed to enforce lockout/tagout procedures and did not maintain a safe facility.

The Gazette left voicemails for Mid Iowa Coop Sept. 8 and Oct. 4, but did not receive a return call. A voicemail left Friday at Mid-States was not returned and a representative at Premier declined to comment Friday.

Low-bidder system creates vulnerabilities, experts say

Private developers often accept the lowest bid for construction because they hope it will save them money. Iowa law requires government bodies to give contracts to the “lowest responsive, responsible bidder.”

“It’s a fiercely competitive industry that prioritizes the low bid over almost all other factors,” the Labor Center’s Clark-Bennett said. “Other states have policies to strengthen workers’ rights and try to buffer against the tendency to race to the bottom for the lowest bid and in the process cut corners in safety and wage payment protections. Our policy does not have those tools in place.”

Specialization in construction has led to layers of contractors and subcontractors, to the point some workers don’t know who their boss is or how they should report safety violations, Clark-Bennett said.

There also is more outsourcing for repairs or maintenance at manufacturing facilities, Anthony said.

“They (contractors) are not covered by the rules of the workplace as much as the rules of who is employing them. Anybody who is less familiar with the operations of a facility is at a disadvantage,” she said.

Vulnerable workers include people who don’t have a support system in Iowa, people for whom English isn’t their first language, young people or recently incarcerated people, Clark-Bennett said.

Company delayed medical care, lawsuit alleges

Bismarck Castro, 38, was working for Allstate Construction & Builder LLC, a Cedar Rapids company, doing wood framing at a Davenport apartment complex July 21, when he fell from a second-floor balcony. He hit his head on a wood piece before coming to rest on the concrete, according to a lawsuit filed Sept. 13 in Cedar Rapids against Allstate and owner Juarez Candido.

Other workers at the site put Castro in a van while they cleaned up the blood before taking him to the hospital, the suit states.

“The hospital was Mercy Hospital in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and not a hospital in Davenport, Iowa,” the suit states. “Plaintiff had significant head injuries, requiring CT scans and many stitches, and required neurological follow-up for medical treatment.”

Dan Vondra, Castro’s attorney, asserted in an interview with The Gazette that Allstate representatives told the hospital the injuries didn’t happen on the job — so workers’ compensation insurance isn’t paying the medical costs.

“If it doesn’t get flagged as worker’s comp, the bill goes to the patient,” he said.

When Castro was released from the hospital, company representatives took him to a Cedar Rapids house and would not let him leave, the suit states. Castro sought refuge in a nearby church before being connected with Royce Peterson, lead representative for the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters.

“We helped him get out of the house he was in,” Peterson said. “We visited the job site, where they claimed nothing had happened.”

The union filed a complaint with Iowa OSHA, he said. The Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa has been helping Castro with housing and living expenses while he continues to receive medical care in Iowa City.

“I’m still trying to figure out how to feel better,” Castro said, speaking in Spanish. A scar by his right eye shows one of the three places he needed stitches after the fall.

The lawsuit claims the company originally promised to pay Castro $20 an hour, but then whittled that down to $12 an hour for 50 to 60 hours of work per week. With medical bills piling up and not being able to work, Castro isn’t able to send money home to his family, including three small children, in Nicaragua, he said.

Candido said Tuesday he did not know about the lawsuit and denied mistreating or underpaying Castro. Linn County sheriffs deputies tried to serve the lawsuit’s paperwork Sept. 20, but were not able to locate Candido, court records state.

“My guys take him to the hospital,” Candido said of Castro. “We buy food for him. He stays in my place for free.”

Candido said his employees did tell the hospital Castro was injured on the job site and he doesn’t know why workers’ compensation insurance isn’t paying the bills.

“I have insurance,” he said, adding that he will “take care of everything.”

Pain, recovery

In some ways, the 20 to 30 minutes De Leon was pinned in the Toledo grain conveyor belt were the longest of his life. He could see Tirado’s foot, severed from his friend’s body, lying on the belt. He also remembers the pain when paramedics removed his boot from his swollen, broken leg.

“I feel grateful for the doctors because they were trying to save my leg,” De Leon said about the surgeons at the UI Hospitals and Clinics. But infections on his bone and tendons complicated the process. He decided about a month after the accident to have doctors amputate his right leg.

“If they didn’t amputate his leg, they would have had to remove all his back muscles in order to cover his leg,” said De Leon’s wife, Melissa Sandoval. “He wasn’t going to be able to lift anything or put any weight on his arms. So he had to choose whether he had mobility in his back or to have his leg amputated.”

Both men are in wheelchairs until their wounds heal completely and they can be fitted for prosthetic legs. They know the recovery will take a long time.

“At least a year, probably more,” Tirado said.

His daughters, ages 2 and 4, came to Iowa City in late July with his sister and brother-in-law. Tirado told the older girl about the accident and unwrapped the bandages on his legs to show her the scars.

“She was like, ‘My dad doesn’t have legs.’ But I was telling her ‘Yeah, I’m going to have robot legs now’,” he said. “She’s back home now. She’s telling everybody, ‘My dad doesn’t have legs, but they’re going to put robotic legs on him’.”

Help from Eastern Iowans

When Augusto Contreras learned Tirado, his brother-in-law, had been injured in Iowa, he typed the words “Catholic,” “charity” and “Iowa” into Google. The search led him to the Catholic Worker House, which provides shelter, meals and other support for immigrants or other people in need in Johnson County.

He was seeking moral support for Tirado’s mother, Marina Torres de Tirado, and Tirado’s wife, Karla Ortiz, after they flew to Iowa.

“I really just called (the Catholic Worker House) to see if there was someone there that could go to the hospital and pray with them,” he said. “Little did I know it was going to be a ride from the airport to the hospital, housing, food, laundry room, the friendship. I really only expected a prayer and I ended up getting a lot more.”

Contreras and Catholic Worker House co-founder Emily Sinnwell organized and promoted a GoFundMe page that has so far raised nearly $24,000. The money has helped pay for lodging and for family members to come help the men during recovery.

Coast 2 Coast, Tirado’s and De Leon’s employer, reported the injuries happened on the job, which means workers’ compensation pays for medical care and disability benefits. By receiving these benefits, employees agree not to sue their employer.