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Hutchens: Grain bins: Safe practices save lives

Grain Bin Safety Week is Feb 20-26

New grain bin
A massive new grain bin is pictured on the farm of Paul Mayclin in rural Plankinton.
Mitchell Republic file photo

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. Practically every grain engulfment that happens could have been avoided.

Entrapments

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“Entrapments” are the most common grain bin incidents. There were 35 reported grain bin entrapment incidents in the U.S. in 2020 and three in South Dakota, according to annual reporting from Purdue University. The actual number of incidents is likely higher since about two-thirds of grain storage is on farms, which are exempt from reporting requirements under the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

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. It 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 bypass 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.

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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.

How to stay safe

There are 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.

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.

Again, though, the first rule is the best. Stay out of grain bins. The Purdue report reiterates that.

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“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. 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.

Farm accidents affect rural communities

When tragedy strikes a rural area, it is never limited to the individual. The agriculture world is small, and these communities are extensions of family. Farm accidents hurt everyone. Most people in rural areas know well the dangers of grain bins.

If you live in a rural area, you probably know of someone who has suffered a grain bin incident. We all need to be aware of the risks so we can stop these tragedies before they start.

We don’t have to lose friends and family members to this.

Related Topics: AGRICULTURE
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