The Danger Zone
May 12, 2017
Written By Adam Buckallew
Grain Bin Entry is Risky Business
Last fall’s record-breaking U.S. harvest of corn and soybeans has set the stage for “the perfect storm for more grain bin accidents in 2017,” according to Charles Ellis, a natural resources engineer with University of Missouri Extension.
Across the country, grain bins are filled to unprecedented levels due to last year’s massive harvest and larger than expected carryover from the previous crop. The excess grain supply and low prices have forced farmers to store grain longer than usual in hopes of a rebound in commodity prices.
Ellis worries the increase in on-farm storage and extended storage periods could lead to more accidents in grain bins this spring.
“We’ve got a lot of grain sitting on the farm that we need to check on,” Ellis says.
Stepping foot inside a grain bin is a perilous proposition that can quickly turn deadly. Anyone who enters a storage structure containing grain, or who climbs onto an outdoor grain storage pile, is at risk of being entrapped or engulfed in grain. Fatalities have occurred in as little as a few feet of grain.
Grain engulfment has been a recognized hazard for decades. Yet both experienced and inexperienced workers continue to underestimate deadly risks associated with the speed and force of flowing or shifting grain.
“Entrapment is one of the most dangerous situations that can arise on a farm,” says Bill Field, a Purdue Extension safety specialist and professor in the university’s Agriculture Safety and Health program. “Dealing with a mountain of grain can be very hazardous.”
More than 1,100 entrapments have been documented throughout the country since 1964. In 2015, the industry reported 22 grain-entrapment cases nationwide. Of those, 82 percent occurred on farms.
Research has shown there is a direct correlation between the presence of out-of-condition grain and an increased likelihood of grain entrapment.
The U.S. Grains Council reported the 2016 corn crop contained a higher moisture content and required more drying than the previous year’s crop. The wide fluctuations in temperature common in springtime throughout the Midwest can cause condensation to form and drip from the top of the bin. This can result in wet grain, which causes farmers to enter bins to deal with crusting, moldy clumps and other spoilage issues.
“This is one of the most dangerous times of the year for farmers,” says Karen Funkenbusch, University of Missouri Extension safety specialist, referring to farmers’ need to move grain and clean out bins following winter. “It takes only five seconds for a person to be caught in flowing grain, and less than 20 seconds to be sucked into the center of the grain, which acts much like quicksand.”
Farmers and workers who become entrapped in grain face grim odds. Less than half survive an entrapment.
“Grain’s weight and other properties make it difficult to get out of a bin without assistance,” Funkenbusch says. “It takes 325 pounds of force to rescue a 165-pound person buried hip-deep in grain and more than 1,500 pounds to rescue the same person who’s 3 feet under the grain surface.”
That’s why Funkenbusch recommends farmers adopt a “zero entry” mentality when it comes to their grain bins. However, if grain bin entry is absolutely necessary, farmers should never go in alone. It is best to have two observers during bin entries. One should maintain constant visual contact with the entrant and the other should be positioned on the ground, prepared to seek help if necessary. The use of a body harness with a lifeline secured to the outside of the bin is also recommended.
Grain Bin Hazards
Grain bin hazards aren’t limited to entrapment or engulfment. Other, equally hazardous situations can occur when working with grain bins. The following is a list of the most common and hazardous situations farmers should be aware of when dealing with stored grain.
Flowing grain – Entrapment is the most often identified hazard and cause of injury when working with flowing grain. Like quicksand, flowing grain will pull a 165-pound man down to waist level in seconds and bury him in less than a minute. Most experts agree once a person has grain above the knees, they have almost no chance of escape without assistance.
Electrical components – Today, more and more farmers and commercial grain companies are acquiring older grain-handling facilities with the intent of increasing storage capacity. Due to poor maintenance or neglect, older facilities tend to have numerous electrical hazards, such as frayed electrical cords, open and rusted breaker boxes and broken electrical conduits. Before beginning any work, we strongly recommend hiring a certified electrician to thoroughly inspect electrical system components to reduce the risk of electrocution or fire.
Bin collapses – Some reclaim augers utilize multiple sumps: a main sump in the center of the bin and auxiliary sumps between the center and the wall of the bin. Bins should always be emptied using only the main sump until grain is lowered to a level where it can no longer flow to the main sump by gravity. At that point, use the auxiliary sumps starting with the one closest to the center and working to the outside one sump at a time. If the auxiliary sump is used to empty a full bin, it results in an uneven loading condition that can lead to a bin collapse, resulting in crushing or engulfment injuries.
Ladders – Although injuries from slips and falls are not as severe as injuries involving augers or power takeoffs, significant injuries can occur because of a fall from a bin ladder. As with all ladders, remember to maintain three points of contact. The three points of contact rule is simple: Always maintain one hand and two feet, or two hands and one foot, when climbing or descending ladders, trucks and equipment.
Fires and explosions – As seeds or kernels are handled, grain dust is produced and can become suspended in air or accumulate on floors, ledges, beams and equipment. When conditions are right, suspended grain dust can ignite and explode, causing catastrophic damage and huge financial and possibly human loss. Preventing grain dust explosions requires a comprehensive dust and ignition control program, which may include the use of an oil suppression system.
Crusted grain – Like bridged grain, crusted grain is often caused by high moisture content. But instead of forming a grain bridge, the grain sticks to the bin walls. If a worker enters the bin to break the grain free, the grain can “avalanche” and completely engulf and suffocate the worker. Using a long pole from outside the bin is the best and safest way to break up the grain.
Augers – Grain bin augers present serious entanglement and amputation hazards. When proper precautions are not followed, workers are exposed to serious injury or death. Grain bin augers include reclaim augers, sweep augers, fill augers and stirring augers. Guards should be placed over intake ends to prevent objects other than grain from entering the auger. Never enter a bin while an auger is running.
Toxic atmospheres – Grain dust also poses a respiratory hazard to some people. Reactions or complications can range from difficulty breathing and stomach problems to skin irritations and rashes. Grain that is out of condition or deteriorating can release toxic gases and create an oxygen-deficient atmosphere. To reduce the risk of serious injury or death, it is crucial to always consider the potential for a toxic atmosphere, introduce ventilation when needed and always wear the proper protective equipment for the appropriate conditions.
Bridged grain – A grain bridge is a hardened, crust-like mass of grain that contains a cavity or pocket underneath. Caused by out-of-condition grain or prolonged periods of freezing temperatures, this inconspicuous hazard is a death trap for any worker. Never enter the bin to “walk the grain.” Instead, break up the grain using a long pole from outside the bin.