Mission Possible

Awareness, training and clear safety procedures are key to avoiding grain bin entrapment.
Mission Possible
Agriculture is one of America's most dangerous professions. Major contributors to that grim reality are deaths and injuries in grain bins. Inside a storage bin, flowing grain can engulf a grown man in just 20 seconds. That fact alone helps explain why every year, people are hurt-and some killed-in grain bin accidents. Grain bin parts (the auger, fans and grain vacuums) can also cause injury and death. Accidents in grain bins are especially challenging, because reaching the victim is difficult for rescuers. The average rescue time is more than three hours.

"When you enter a bin, there are huge potential consequences," says Wayne Stigge, technical trainer for CHS, County Operations Division, in Pasco, Wash. An awareness of the dangers is a first important step toward preventing grain bin accidents.

Understanding Grain

The events of 2010-with 51 grain bin accidents, the worst year on record-created greater awareness of the dangers grain bins can pose. Grain condition contributed to the numbers: It was a wet year, and crops had high moisture content. Managing grain condition, Stigge says, can lower the risk of grain bin problems because dry grain flows better. "If we can control grain quality, that can help us," he says.

Understanding grain properties is also important. "People think they'll go in, get something loose and then get back out," Stigge adds. "But once grain starts flowing, it's so hard to get out of the bin."

An employee at Heartland Co-op in West Des Moines, Iowa, experienced the danger of flowing grain firsthand when he was trapped two years ago, and co-workers had to rescue him. "A gentleman got into a situation and was buried to his waist," says Bill Chizek, Heartland's director of safety and compliance. "Fortunately, our people were able to get him out."

Chizek trains Heartland's employees once or twice a year on grain bin rescue procedures, and they've started grain quality initiatives to minimize potential problems.

Grain Bin Safety Tips
Grain Bin Safety Tips
Taking Additional Precautions

Heartland has taken other steps, too. "We've upgraded a lot of sweep augers so we don't have to be in the bins to get them to work," Chizek says. "And we have a new vacuum system that we use to get all the grain out."

He emphasizes that no one should ever enter a bin with a sweep augur running; following lock-out/tag-out procedures helps ensure that doesn't happen.

"Shut off the circuit breaker for the auger, put a lock on the top of it, and attach a tag with your name, the date and time," explains Dan Neenan, director of the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety (NECAS). "Only you can remove it." Lock-out kits cost about $35.

Air monitoring is another important safety precaution. "An employee entering a bin should clip the monitoring device to his or her harness so it goes with the employee down where the air could be dangerous," Neenan says.

Focusing on Training

Entering a grain bin with the auger running is just one of the reasons that entrapments happen. Bridging and crusting grain are two more potential causes of disasters: A person goes in to knock down grain crusted on the bin's side and causes an avalanche, or he falls into a void when a grain bridge-a hard, crusty surface formed by moldy or frozen grain-collapses. A fourth cause is a more recent development: texting and using a grain vacuum. "Workers stick the hose at their feet while they answer a text, and it sucks the grain out from under their feet," Neenan says.

For the times when someone must enter a bin, NECAS has developed training for the proper procedures. Businesses that pay for their trainers' travel expenses can receive that instruction free, Neenan says.

It's not just employees who need training in rescues. Making sure the local fire department is trained properly is also critical, Stigge says. Because every facility-and even every bin-presents a different scenario for rescuers, it's a good idea to have all potential rescue workers familiar with the specifics.

Since 2010, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has taken a harder line on grain bin safety violations, increasing enforcement and fines. But the majority of grain bin accidents happen on OSHA-exempt facilities, such as family farms. Now the level of awareness and education is starting to increase there, too, Neenan says, which is crucial to preventing accidents.

""It can't happen to me'-we've got to end that thinking," Neenan says. "The wrong decision could end your life."