Cleaning out grain bins ranks right up there with scouting pollinating corn in popularity. Throw in the heat and humidity of a summer day, and neither are enviable chores.
If this is the day you’re cleaning out a grain bin and you’re the one inside the bin, you owe it to yourself to be serious about respiratory protection, according to Bill Field and Ed Sheldon.
“The COVID-19 pandemic complicates things because you may have more trouble obtaining recommended respiratory equipment,” says Field, Purdue University Extension farm safety specialist.
Sheldon, who works with Field, adds, “You need the best protection you can get under the circumstances. Adapt and use the best resources you can find.”
Field and Sheldon provide additional information:
What is the normal recommendation for respiratory protection when cleaning a grain bin?
Sheldon: We have always recommended an N95 respirator. An N95 respirator will carry the insignia of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. That is how you know that model has undergone rigorous testing. An N95 mask is highly effective against airborne particles, including mold spores.
Are there knockoff respirators on the market due to COVID-19?
Field: Yes. Most common is a KN95 mask, made in China. It’s supposed to meet Chinese testing standards. Because of how it attaches to your face, it’s more difficult to get a proper fit. The fit is extremely important for effectiveness. There are also European models.
Ed [Sheldon], Shawn Ehlers and I put together an article for the Indiana Prepared website, updated in June, which covers these different types of masks and other issues related to respiratory protection. Look for Article 6, “Respiratory Protection and PPE for Agricultural Workers During COVID-19.”
If you can’t find an N95 respirator, what can you do?
Sheldon: If you can find an even better respirator, such as an N100, it’s worth the cost. If not, you may have to resort to simple dust filter masks, now available in bulk quantities at many big-box stores. You will need to change them often. However, if you know you had a problem with mold and spoiled grain in a bin, make every effort to find an N95 or better mask.
Field: The reason you need an N95 or better mask when molds are prevalent is that the simple dust-type masks you buy in bulk won’t prevent mold spores from getting into your lungs. These masks will help keep dust out of your nostrils.
If you’re cleaning a grain bin on a hot, humid day and the best you have are the cheap masks, change them out every 15 minutes or so. Tests show that as masks become wet as you perspire, oxygen levels drop. If you’re an older individual with preexisting breathing issues, you’re putting yourself at risk. Bandanas do little, if any, good at all.
Is the better option to send an employee into the bin instead?
Field: It’s an option. However, recommendations and policy followed by grain companies require employees to have a physical exam and approval from a physician, plus training on fitting the mask, before they can enter the bin. Beards and facial hair make fitting masks more complex.
There are no easy answers to respiratory protection, especially this year, but it needs to be taken seriously.