Manure storage structures can be deadly in more ways than one

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Manure agitation
Manure agitation demonstration.

LONDON, Ohio — As manure handling equipment continues to evolve — farmers and custom applicators should remember to keep safety a priority.

Dee Jepsen, ag and health safety leader for Ohio State University, led a talk Aug. 4 at the North American Manure Expo, that revealed risks farmers often encounter.

One of the biggest myths, Jepsen said, is not understanding what defines a confined space — and the dangerous gasses that can be found within.

Confined spaces

She said manure storage areas even open air structures such as lagoons and manure pits fit the definition of confined space, because they have a limited opening for entry/exit, they produce dangerous air contaminants with unfavorable ventilation, and are not intended for human occupancy.

While some dangers may seem obvious, Jepsen said there are still safety protocols that need to be considered — and reconsidered. She said a big risk is getting too comfortable with a particular manure-holding structure.

Related: Manure expo brings nutrient science to Ohio.

Jepsen said farmers and farm workers sometimes forget that conditions can change in a manure pit from day to day, and season to season, resulting in different gasses being emitted, and different safety hazards.

“Just because you’ve entered the pit or you’ve done something one day, does not mean that it’s the same as the next day,” she said.

Rescue plan

Another problem is not having a suitable rescue plan. She said farmers should have a written manure safety plan, review it with all employees and possibly even review it with local first-responders.

Manure agitation
A manure agitation demonstration, during the manure expo.

While no one wants to think about a rescue situation, she said about two-thirds of the victims in confined spaces are people trying to rescue the first victim.

Over the 10-year period ending in 2013, she said three people in Ohio died from accidents involving manure lagoons and pits. While that number may seem low, she said it still has a huge impact on the families involved, and added there have likely been many more near-death incidents.

“Is it a big problem?” she asked. “I’d say for those three families, it’s a very big problem.”

The main gasses of concern are methane, hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, and the displacement of oxygen.

Jepsen said it only takes about a 4 percent concentration of methane to displace 1 percent of oxygen — enough to affect thinking and functioning.

But the biggest concern with low levels of methane is explosion.

The explosive range for methane is between the 5-15 percent concentration, she said. Higher percentages of methane are actually more stable and less likely to explode, but will displace more oxygen.

Lighter than air

Jepsen warned that because methane is lighter than air, it will also rise, and can rise up out of the manure pit and into other parts of the barn where it can go undetected.

Hydrogen sulfide, on the other hand, produces a rotten egg smell and lurks around the bottom of the pit. This highly toxic gas can irritate the eyes and nose at levels as low as 100 parts per million. But at higher percentages, such as 800 or more, “it can just take out your respiratory capacity altogether.”

Jepsen said high levels of hydrogen sulfide will actually deaden a person’s senses — so that you can no longer smell its presence. Holding your breath doesn’t work, she said, because the irritation to your eyes and nose will cause you to gasp for air.

To combat these gasses, Jepsen said farmers should use proper ventilation and fans — but keep in mind that ventilation will change the gas chemistry, potentially causing new hazards.

A particularly dangerous time is during pit agitation, when agitation equipment stirs the manure and creates air pockets and bubbles, releasing more gas.

Follow the rules

Whether a farmer is OSHA-regulated or not, she suggested paying attention to OSHA regulations for the safety of the farm.

One way farmers can know if their confined space is safe, she said, is by using a monitoring unit. These units can be purchased for $600-$1,200, and are small enough they can fit onto your belt, or onto a stick, if you need to measure the gasses in a confined space before entering.

Jepsen recommends ordering a four-gas unit that is designed to measure methane, hydrogen sulfide, oxygen and carbon monoxide. Although carbon monoxide is not likely to be found in your manure pit, you can use it in other places on the farm, such as in a garage or machinery shed.

She said if farmers are planning to enter an area that is known to be oxygen deficient, they need to be wearing a self-contained breathing apparatus like firefighters wear. Face masks and face respirators won’t work.

Dragline hoses

While Jepsen talked mostly about the dangers of manure storage, Jeremy Puck, general manager at Puck Enterprises, talked about safety hazards of using dragline hose.

A dragline is a thick, durable hose that is attached to the back of a manure applicator, to supply liquid manure across the field.

Puck said the lines can be dangerous when cleaning, because operators send a “pipeline pig,” or cleaning unit, through the line under high pressure, to remove any buildup. The weightless line can become erratic, he said, and easily jump off the ground, especially when the hose is unhooked while full of air.

He recalled one situation in which the operator’s shirt was sandblasted and the tractor window was broken — all because of a simple mistake — that left the line going wild.

Puck said when the line is full of manure and breaks, it’s usually not as dangerous, because the weight of the manure keeps it from jumping off the ground.

He said farmers need to communicate clearly when they’re draglining, so that the guy at one end of the line knows the same information as the rest. He said it’s common to have multiple helpers when draglining across a field, and they need a good radio, or means of staying in touch.

And, he said farmers need to be careful not to go too fast. He said it’s easy to get in a hurry, and overlook safety.

“You can’t make up time on the safety side,” he said.

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Chris Kick served Farm and Dairy's readership as a reporter for nearly a decade before accepting a job at Iowa State University Extension. An American FFA Degree recipient, he holds a bachelor’s in creative writing from Ashland University.

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