Farming is one of the most dangerous jobs in the U.S. Farmers use heavy machinery, sometimes alone, and they work in areas that can be hard to reach quickly by emergency responders.
But machines are not the only danger. Often it’s the grain itself that causes some of the most severe accidents. This week is Grain Bin Safety Week, focused on increasing awareness around a high-risk area on farms across the country and accidents that are familiar to many in rural areas.
Grain bin accidents are especially tragic because they are so preventable, says Jerad Hutchens, Vice President at Summit Contracting in Platte, SD.
“Every single grain engulfment that happens, I feel like it could have been avoided,” he said.
“Entrapments” are the most common grain bin incidents. There were 35 reported grain bin entrapment incidents in the U.S. in 2020 (three in South Dakota). With about two-thirds of grain storage on farms, which are exempt from reporting requirements under the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, the likely number of incidents is much higher, according to annual reporting from Purdue University.
Entrapments happen when grain that appears to be stationary suddenly begins to flow, pulling its victim down into the flow.
“Essentially you’re in quicksand,” Hutchens said. “It just sucks you down into that funnel.”
This is caused by clogged grain or grain stuck to the walls of the bin that suddenly breaks free. It can also be caused when a crust forms across a portion of grain, creating a void. When a farm worker goes into the bin to break up the flow, the grain collapses and pulls the person under.
“When a farmer or elevator employee has to ‘fight’ to get the grain to flow out of the structure, there is a strong temptation to by-pass safe work practices by entering the structure in order to keep the grain flowing,” the Purdue report states.
In all three of those cases – clogs, grain on the walls and voids – poor quality grain is the culprit. Excessive moisture, foreign material, rot and other issues hinder the flow of grain and increase the risk of accidents.
Grain bin accidents are often fatal
One of the most disturbing aspects of grain bin accidents is the high fatality rate. Historically, more than half of reported grain bin incidents lead to death.
Once a person is pulled into the grain to their waist, they’re already past the point where they can just be pulled out. They must be secured and removed via other means, such as a rescue tube that isolates the grain around the individual so it can be scooped out.
Once the grain is over a person’s head, “a lot of times it’s more recovery at that point than rescue,” Hutchens said.
How to stay safe
Hutchens names three things to keep in mind to avoid grain entrapment.
First, stay away. “The number one rule is to never enter a grain bin that has grain in it,” he said.
Second, if you decide to ignore Rule #1 and enter a grain bin, make sure you are tied off and have a spotter.
Third, always practice “lockout/tagout,” which means shutting down machinery and locking the mechanism, tagging it, and keeping the key with you to ensure no one can start the auger while you are in the bin.
Hutchens reiterates that the best strategy is the first rule. Don’t enter grain bins. Purdue’s annual report agrees.
“If the grain won’t flow, it’s already too late to debate what was or was not done to prepare the grain for safe storage.” The safest strategy is to contact a professional grain salvage service.
In addition to the rules for personal safety, taking good care of your grain is a great preventative measure, Hutchens said. Dry your grain and make sure it’s free of foreign material. Consistent grain is less likely to stick and create clogs or voids in the bin.
Also, keep augers, sweeps and other equipment well maintained so they operate as expected and the grain flows well.
“Things that are only used a couple times a year can get neglected,” Hutchens said.
Farm accidents affect rural communities
When tragedy strikes a rural area, it is never limited to the individual. These communities are extensions of family, and farm accidents hurt everyone. Most people in rural areas know well the dangers of grain bins.
“The agriculture world is a small world,” Hutchens said. “More often than not, you know somebody who’s been affected by it.”
That is what drives Hutchens to advocate for grain bin safety. Raising awareness so people understand the risks can stop tragedies before they start.
“We don’t have to lose friends and family members to this,” he said.