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Harvest peak period for injuries: Keep grain handling operations safe

That triple cheeseburger you had for lunch could kill you, but it will likely take years for it to do its damage, slowly hardening the arteries around your heart. On the other hand, failing to follow basic safety guidelines around your farm could make you a statistic by this time tomorrow.

According to the National Safety Council, farming is one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States. More than 700 farmers and ranchers die in work-related accidents, and another 120,000 agricultural workers suffer disabling injuries from work-related accidents each year.

“Harvest-time is primary revenue time on many farms, and is also one of the peak periods for farm injuries and deaths,” the safety group says. “Automated equipment has made handling of grain easy and fast. But, grain storage structures and handling equipment create hazardous work areas.”

The hazards of operating grain bins proved deadly for two Mississippi men this year.

In February, a Pontotoc, Miss., farmer went into one of his grain bins, apparently with the unloading system operating, and became entrapped. Despite the calls for help that he made on his cell phone to 911, he died of suffocation.

“He had gone into the top of the bin, possibly to level grain, when he was sucked down into the grain. The accident happened around 10 a.m., but it was nearly 4 p.m. before they were able to extract his body from the grain bin,” says farm safety expert Herb Willcutt.

In September of this year, a 75-year-old Bolivar County man was crushed while cleaning out a grain bin pit when another employee of the farm accidentally drove a backhoe into the pit. According to the local sheriff, the backhoe driver accidentally hit the accelerator instead of the brake, and the tractor jumped into the loading pit with the victim.

Willcutt, an agricultural engineer at Mississippi State University in Starkville, Miss., reminds growers there is one cardinal rule when using a backhoe, or similar type of equipment. Anytime a boom is being operated or moved, no one should be anywhere near that area where they could come in contact with the equipment.

Most grain bin accidents, according to Willcutt, involve someone becoming entrapped in flowing grain. “Anytime you enter a confined space with the potential of the bottom falling out from under you, so to speak, you need to have a rescue harness system to keep you from being sucked down into the grain. Anytime you enter a grain bin, you also need to have someone there that has the capability to provide rescue or assistance as needed,” he says.

The number one rule, Willcutt says, is never enter a grain bin with the unloading system operating. In addition, he recommends never entering a bin that has had grain removed without probing to check for possible cavities in the bin, and never entering a bin without proper ventilation. “You should run the fan in the grain bin for several hours before attempting to go in it, because the dusts and gasses produced by out of condition grain have the potential to be deadly.”

To prevent injuries, illnesses and even death, the National Safety Council recommends growers follow these guidelines when operating grain bins:

  • Label grain bins to warn of entrapment hazards.
  • Lock entrances to grain handling areas to keep bystanders and children out.
  • Install ladders inside bins.
  • Do not enter grain bins that are being loaded or unloaded. Flowing grain can trap and suffocate you in seconds.
  • If it is necessary to enter a bin, shut off and lockout power before entering. Use a safety harness and safety line. Have several people available outside the bin to lift entrant out in case of emergency.
  • Wear dust-filtering respirators when working in and around grain handling areas. High amounts of dust and molds could be present and are extremely dangerous.
  • Wear approved hearing protection when working around noisy equipment, aeration fans and dryers.
  • Be very cautious of grain that may be out of condition. Crusted grain may have cavities beneath the surface that can collapse, leading to entrapment and suffocation.
  • Keep bystanders and children away from grain bins and grain handling equipment.

Although flowing grain is the primary cause of grain bin-related accidents, other dangers also exist, including high voltage electrical wires, ladders, and catwalks. In addition, auger entanglement accidents can occur if protective shields are left off and someone kicks at a clump of grain to get it flowing into the auger.

“Loose soybeans on a floor or a mixture of water in a concrete grain pit with corn or soybeans, and it's just like walking on marbles. Slips, trips, or falls around grain bins can be pretty serious because of the height of the bins, the fact that augers are in operation, and the fact that all of this equipment is on unforgiving concrete,” Willcutt says.

e-mail: [email protected].

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