SALEM, Ohio — Accidents happen all the time — and when it comes to grain bins and silos, accidents can turn deadly. Two deaths by entrapment in a grain bin and corn silo have already occurred in Ohio and Pennsylvania since the beginning of September.
In 2022, there were 24 fatal and 50 non-fatal entrapment cases across the U.S. — a 40.7% increase from the previous year, according to Purdue University’s 2022 report by its Agricultural Safety and Health Program.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a person only has two seconds to react before grain starts to flow beneath them. Entrapment can occur within four to five seconds and full engulfment can take as little as 22 seconds.
With harvest season here and National Farm Safety and Health Week happening from Sept. 17 to Sept. 23, farm safety and agricultural experts from Ohio State University and Penn State University are reminding people how to operate grain bins and silos safely.
Tips to avoid danger
One of the main reasons a person enters a grain bin or silo is to break up clusters of grain, corn or soybeans that clump together as a result of moisture.
Before entering a grain bin or silo, Judd Michael, professor of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Penn State University, recommends using a long pole to attempt to break up clumps first.
However, if this doesn’t work and the farmer has to enter a grain bin or silo, there are several safety precautions one can take to ensure entrapment does not occur.
Turn off equipment
Before entering a bin or silo, all equipment like the unloading and sweeping auger should be de-energized as augers can act like quicksand, pulling down a human with considerable force as it pulls down grains.
“You’re entering an area that has hazards of engulfment, don’t add the entanglement factor to that,” said Dee Jepsen, an Agricultural Safety and Health Specialist and professor at Ohio State University, in regard to turning off power.
During entrapment, grain acts like concrete and sand holding the victim down and keeping them stuck in place, explains Jepsen. Because of the high amount of pressure applied to the body when in grain, if stuck up to the waist, a pole able to withstand 350 pounds of force is required to pull the victim out. If the victim is stuck up to their neck, the pressure doubles and requires a 600-pound pole to be used to pull them out.
Wear a harness
It is also recommended to wear a harness and have a rope that is attached to the top of the grain bin when going down.
However, older bins and silos oftentimes do not have anything for a rope to be tied to, something Jepsen notes deters the effectiveness and use of harnesses.
“There could be some engineering design that could help reduce the injuries. I’m not going to say it’s just one specific thing. But this is a challenge I think perhaps some of our grain companies and our young engineers could solve,” Jepsen said.
Part of the problem when engineering an attachment point for a rope is the amount of weight it would need to withstand. To hold a person via harness and rope, the attachment needs to withstand a 5,000-pound pull.
Over the years, some grain bin manufacturers have taken steps to make the attachment of a harness possible, yet many farmers still have older grain bins and may not want to spend the money to buy a new one, Michael said.
Use the buddy system
After shutting off the augers, farmers are reminded to never enter a bin or silo without supervision. The observer can call 911 and get help in case of an accident.
Earlier this year, in February, a worker at Littlejohn Grain Inc. in Illinois was rescued from a grain bin after a five-hour rescue effort was called in by observers.
Jason Sluder entered the grain bin to break up a cluster with his feet and was pulled down up to his thighs. Fortunately, no augers were running and two other workers were present. He credits his safety to the augers being off and the two additional sets of eyes watching, which were able to get him help in time.
Don’t be a hero
Alongside having someone present, it is important to remind whoever is supervising to not go in after them if something goes wrong, Michael said, referring to an incident that occurred last year in Centre County, Pennsylvania, where three people died from entrapment in a corn silo when one after the other went in to pull each other out.
Entrapment is not the only hazard farmers need to be aware of when working around grain bins and silos. Farmers should also take precautions to protect themselves from dust and hazardous gasses that they may encounter.
An n95 mask can be worn when going into a grain bin or silo to protect a farmer/farm manager from dust particles. However, an n95 mask will not offer protection from hazardous gasses that can be emitted in grain bins and silos.
Farmers can test the air around grain bins and silos using a basic gas-testing device in order to properly ventilate and avoid contamination from hazardous gases.
Resources for grain bin and silo safety
Resources for grain bin and silo safety. There are several resources farmers can access to further their education on grain bin safety.
The Ohio Fire Academy offers a hands-on training program for farmers, FFA members and community members that teaches participants grain bin rescue techniques as well as awareness and prevention methods. The Grain C.A.R.T. program is a collaboration with the Ohio Fire Academy and OSU’s Agricultural and Health Safety Program. For more information visit: https://agsafety.osu.edu/grain-cart.
Several other fire stations across Ohio have grain rescue training programs including Wayne County Fire and Rescue Association, Napoleon Fire and Rescue Training Facility and Clinton-Warren Joint Fire District Safety Training Center.
OSHA has a list of standards for grain handling which is available online for farmers to access at: https://www.osha.gov/grain-handling#:~:text=OSHA%20standards%20require%20that%20both,throughout%20a%20grain%20handling%20facility. However, these standards are only enforced on farms with 11 employees or more, which Jepsen notes poses an additional safety concern for small farms.
PSU Extension also has videos online regarding grain bin safety rescue at https://extension.psu.edu/grain-bin-safety-rescue. OSU Extension has a list of grain safety and health recommendations on its website at https://agcrops.osu.edu/newsletter/corn-newsletter/2021-04/health-and-safety-recommendations-farm-grain-bin-facilities.
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