Grain bins

A historically wet 2019 meant crops didn’t have a chance to dry down to ideal moisture levels before harvest. Grain went into the bin wet, and as weather warms this spring, it can create some risky conditions inside the bin.

Experts urge farmers to exercise extreme caution when checking bins and unloading grain. Grain engulfment is a major hazard that causes dozens of deaths at U.S. farms and storage facilities every year.

It often starts with wet grain. Grain can develop a hardened crust, becoming bridged over lose grain. When it gives way, a person standing on the top layer can become engulfed in the loose grain below. They can suffocate in a matter of seconds.

Entering a grain bin is always risky.

“You really shouldn’t be entering at all if you know it’s bridged,” said Sara Bauder, South Dakota State University Extension agronomy specialist. “One of the issues with crusted grain is people think they will enter the bin quick and break the layer, not realizing they will have no control of the flow of grain when the bridged grain breaks.”

When advising on grain bin safety, she relies on the procedures laid out by Dr. Ken Hellevang, an agricultural engineer from North Dakota State University. Those tips include staying near the outside wall if you have to enter a bin. Grain makes a cone in the middle of the bin as it moves, so outside edges will see the least movement.

She also advises using a wooden pole to break up crusted grain from openings outside the bin, discouraging the use of metal rods because of electrocution risks when working around power lines.

Grain bins should be equipped with exit ladders and lifelines that hang from the roof. Exterior ladders should have cages on them to prevent unsupervised kids from climbing up.

“Prevention measures are big,” Bauder said.

Across the U.S., there were 38 grain entrapment incidents last year. That’s according to Perdue University’s latest report released in March. The university tracks agricultural confined space-related incidents, which include entrapment, falls from grain bins or grain trucks, asphyxiation from manure gases, and entanglement in equipment such as grain augers.

Grain entrapment makes up the highest number of incidents, and the most deadly. From the 38 incidents in 2019, there were 25 deaths. Minnesota had the highest number of grain entrapment incidents at seven, followed by Iowa, Nebraska and Ohio with four each. Kansas reported one.

Many farmers skip out on certain safety measures when performing routine tasks.

“There’s a lot of complacency in farming because we’re always in a hurry on the farm,” Bauder said.

Janelle Atyeo can be reached at