It’s a story that Salah Issa has seen once, which is one too many times.
Maintenance workers were fixing the roof of a grain bin on the outside. They were equipped to protect themselves, but disaster still struck.
“They followed all the requirements — harnesses, the grain was stable and level — but they forgot to lockout and tagout the equipment,” said Salah Issa, assistant professor of agricultural and industrial safety at the University of Illinois.
Without that system in place, a truck came to the bin and turned on the auger while maintenance workers were inside, trapping them in the bin.
The Lockout Tagout system is one of the most effective prevention methods for grain bin safety. Disconnecting the power source to the machine, or locking it out, will prevent any augers from turning on. Tagging a warning label by that power source will inform anyone that tries to connect the power source to double check nobody is inside or will be harmed, Issa said.
As harvest approaches, preparations should include making sure things are safe when accessing bins.
Salah said putting poor-condition grain into the bin is one of the ways to add risk for any grain bin entrapments or engulfment. He said of the 30 to 40 cases per year of grain entrapments, nearly 70% are due to a farmer trying to dislodge grain stuck at the bottom of the bin.
“They don’t follow protocol in some cases,” Salah said. “They go in with the auger still running and it saves time, a lot of time. You don’t know if you got rid of the clump until the grain starts going down again, so they can see if they were successful if the auger is running.”
Maintenance of grain bins is the most important aspect of preparation, Salah said.
Making sure there are no insects and air is flowing correctly will allow for grain to settle in a stable way. That will also allow for less grain condition concerns, meaning there should be fewer emergency trips to the bin.
Hellevang stressed that farmers who are dealing with an excessively wet season will need to be careful.
“We do see spikes in years where we have a late or wet harvest,” Salah said. “Make sure you are taking good, quality grain into the bins and drying it appropriately. It’s not always foolproof, because there are off years and grain can clump together. When that happens, just follow the basic safety regulations.”
Using compressed air to clean out grain bins ahead of time will help come harvest time, and even something as simple as having another person around will add to the safety when bins need to be accessed.
If a person does get trapped, Salah said the likelihood of survival depends on two factors: If your airways are trapped and time. If airways are not blocked, he said the survival rates can be around 90%.
If the body is fully engulfed, the chance of survival drops to about 7%. Those factors play into how much time someone would have to be rescued.
“I’ve seen cases of individuals who have survived up to five hours, but those are the exception,” Salah said. “In those cases they had a helmet that helped pump air from the surrounding grain to them.”
As far as rescue methods, the coffer dam is still the most used and effective process. The long walls are designed to be placed around the trapped victim so grain can be removed without adding extra pressure. Hellevang said there are also methods involving opening up the grain bin, particularly if the victim cannot be seen.