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. Fatalities spiked recently with 15 deaths nationwide since August. That’s compared to 27 in 2018, according to federal numbers.
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 lose 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.
At least two grain engulfment incidents made news in South Dakota in the first few months of this year.
Christopher Bauman, 27, was killed in February after entering a bin on an Elkton, South Dakota farm. Less than a month later, rescue crews were able to save a man trapped in a grain bin southeast of Pierre.
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. South Dakota had no reported injuries or deaths in 2019, but there have been 30 grain entrapment incidents in the state since the university’s tracking program began in 1962.
A grain engulfment prevention summit was planned this month in Mitchell, but had to be canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was part of the “Grain Safety Stand-Up” awareness week April 13-17 promoted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Before social distancing guidelines canceled school and events, the Webster community heard a message grain bin safety at an event hosted by the Clark/Day County Farm Bureau. The Webster theater put on a special showing of “Silo,” a feature film about grain entrapment for FFA chapters from Webster/Waubay, as well as the neighboring communities of Florence, Clark and Groton. Following the movie, a safety manager from the Agtegra cooperative talked about safety and showed how to use a harness when entering a grain bin.
County Farm Bureau president Jerry Mork helped organize the event. He heard about the film at the Farm Progress show in Illinois, where he talked with the director and an actor. The film is based on a true story that happened in Illinois. Mork thought the movie would provide a good way to send a message to kids about the importance of grain bin safety.
“The majority of these (incidents) could be eliminated,” Mork said.
He noted that common-sense precautions such as lock-out, tag-out measures to let others know not to turn equipment on when you’re working in the bin and using a safety harness can go a long way in preventing death and injury.
“Don’t go in there unless you’re prepared,” Mork said.
Still, 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.
Commercial grain facilities require workers to use a safety harness when entering a grain bin. In an effort to get family farms to employ the same practice, Agtegra is selling harnesses at cost, which is $460. As of late March, 82 had been sold.