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Early season grain bin accidents prompt safety concerns

Industry experts are concerned 2020 could see an increased number of grain bin entrapments.

Paula Mohr

February 10, 2020

5 Min Read
steel grain bins
WEATHER IMPACTS: Farm safety and grain bin experts are concerned about the potential for increased numbers of bin accidents and death due to poor grain condition causing clumping, sticking and bridging.Getty Images

The repercussions of a wet harvest last year are now showing up inside grain bins.

Simply put, grain was either put in too wet or not dried down enough and it is going out of condition, causing clumping, bridging and sticking to bin walls, and clogging unloading equipment.

The challenge for farmers encountering these conditions is whether they will take the necessary safety precautions to work in bins. If they don’t practice safety first, some industry experts predict this winter could be one of the worst ever for the number of potential grain bin entrapments and deaths.

“There is tremendous concern about grain bin and confined space incidents this year,” says Marsha Salzwedel, project scientist with the National Farm Medicine Center, Marshfield Clinic, Marshfield, Wis. Farmers who enter bins to break up stuck grain can become trapped in four to five seconds and totally engulfed in less than a minute, Salzwedel says. A farmer inside a bin working to unclog unloading equipment can get pulled under in seconds when the grain starts flowing again.

Gary Woodruff, Grain Systems Inc. district manager, Indianapolis, is concerned how early this winter that grain bin accidents have started.

“Usually it’s March or April when we first hear of grain bin deaths,” Woodruff says. However, reports have trickled in since the start of the new year. By early February, Woodruff knew of three confirmed grain bin deaths in Indiana. In Minnesota, one grain bin death occurred in late January.

Since last August in Minnesota, there reportedly have been four other deaths related to grain bin accidents.

Nationwide since August, at least 15 people were killed in grain bin accidents, compared with 27 who died in all of 2018, according to a Purdue University database.

“We’re on track for one of the worst years ever for grain bin entrapment,” Woodruff says.

Put safety first when working with grain bins

Both Woodruff and Salzwedel note that grain bin accidents can be prevented.

The easiest way? Simply put, do not enter the bin. Use a bin bot or bin vibrator to loosen stuck grain.

GSI employees in safety training exercise using Res Q-Tube
SAFETY FIRST: Employees with GSI are required to participate in safety training exercises. Here they are using the company’s Res-Q-Tube shield to simulate extracting an entrapped person in a grain bin.

If you feel you must enter a bin, follow a safety plan. The Marshfield Clinic recommends that a proper grain bin entry plan should include:

  • a lock out/tag out procedure that locks and tags all equipment before entry

  • an assessment of grain condition and other hazards before entry

  • two people mandatory for entry — one enters while one observes to ensure safety, assist with equipment, etc.

  • actual use of proper equipment in good working condition

Salzwedel says that if someone does get trapped or engulfed, the observer should not attempt rescue.

“When someone has grain to up to his waist, the force required to get him out is so large,” she says. Putting a rope around someone’s waist and pulling will not work and could cause serious injury. Rescue requires special training and equipment, so it is important to contact emergency personnel for assistance.

Retrofitting may be an option for some

Salzwedel says retrofitting a grain bin for safety may be an option, depending on several factors such as bin age, condition and size, and how it was constructed.

“If a lifeline system needs to be added to the bin, the owner should contact the bin manufacturer or other certified professional to have the bin assessed for structural integrity, and location and installation of anchor points,” she says.

More information on grain bin safety is available through the Grain Handling Safety Coalition website, including handouts, videos, free training and more.

The end results of deadly grain bin accidents can be devastating to the farm families and communities. A YouTube video, “Seconds to Tragedy,” tells the story of an accident involving two fatalities and two survivors that happened in Illinois.

Lawmaker seeks funding for grain bin safety retrofits

A Minnesota state senator plans to propose a bill that would offer grants to farmers to retrofit their grain bins with safety equipment.

Sen. Nick Frentz, DFL- North Mankato, who serves on the Senate Agriculture, Rural Development, and Housing Finance Committee, plans to introduce the bill soon after the legislative session opens Feb. 11. Recent grain bin deaths in the state and elsewhere prompted him to consider retrofitting safety equipment.

“This is one way for farmers to make safety improvements,” Frentz says. “If we save even one farm family from this, it is money well spent.”

Frentz’s proposed bill calls for the establishment of two farm safety grant programs — one that covers installing tractor rollover protection and another that covers grain storage facility protection equipment. The proposed grant would be limited to 75% of the farmer's costs to purchase, ship and install grain storage facility safety protection equipment. Suggested funding for the program would be around $500,000.

Eligible grain storage facility safety protection equipment could include fall protection systems, engineering controls to prevent contact with an auger or other moving parts, dust collection systems to minimize explosion hazards and other grain storage facility safety protection equipment approved by the ag commissioner.

Individual grant requests could range from $500-$1,500 per farmer, depending on the type of safety expenditure sought, he adds.

Frentz also worked on cost-share funding for the state’s previous tractor rollover protection program. He says that the grain bin grants would be administered the same way through the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

Frentz plans to invite other lawmakers to sign onto his proposed bill and hopes it will be heard and move through the committee. He says he looks forward to people testifying and learning more about how such a program would help improve safety for farmers working with grain bins.

About the Author(s)

Paula Mohr

Editor, The Farmer

Mohr is former editor of The Farmer.

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