High moisture content in US grain raises safety concerns

By Aerin Einstein-Curtis

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/naumoid
© GettyImages/naumoid

Related tags Osha safety grain bin Corn

Conditions of feed grains and ingredients at harvest is raising concerns about safety as wet grain can lead to storage problems and prompt grain bin entry, says safety expert.

The concern is that 2020 could be a “bad year”​ for grain engulfments, said Dan Neenan, director of the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety (NECAS).

“If we look back in history, 2010 was the worst year on record in America for engulfment and fatalities and that followed a 2009 harvest that was very late getting harvested and was put away with a high moisture content,”​ he told FeedNavigator.

Similarly, the 2019 harvest continued into December for producers in some parts of the country, he said. Moisture levels in stored grain could have been up to 20% in some areas.

“There needs to be an awareness that the harvest was late, and it had a high moisture content to it, which means the possibility of it clumping and molding and getting out of condition is real,” ​Neenan said. “When they go to start getting grain out and it plugs they need to realize that there’s an inherent danger of going inside – the newer bins have multiple sumps so if one sump plugs you can switch to another sump or possibly a side dump [and] if they’ve got that they need to use that before going inside.”

“But, if the second sump plugs, going inside there it’s going to be dangerous and they need to be careful,” ​he added. “There are things they can do so that if they have to enter into the bin they can make that a safer entry.”  

If the stored grain is free-flowing and the auger system works correctly, there would be few reasons why a grain producer would need to enter a grain bin, he said. “It’s when the auger [or] that sump gets plugged, then that’s when they go in​.

Neenan’s organization NECAS​ conducts training intended to stress best practices regarding grain bin entry and provides training for fire departments and first responders to address grain engulfment situations. The suggestion is that safety training should be reviewed annually.

Everyone working with feed or grain needs to understand the dangers involved, Neenan said. “We’re trying to educate about the dangers of entering the bin and the procedures to make it as safe as possible,”​ he added.

“From what I’ve seen the number one culprit is farmers are in a hurry,” ​he said. “It’s that being in a hurry and thinking that nothing is going to happen that they enter in the bin by themselves.”

Safety precautions and training

One focus of training is to prevent producers from having to enter a grain or feed storage bin, said Neenan. “We’re going to try and do is get the message out to the farmers – if you don’t have to go into the bin, don’t.”

However, there are several steps that producers can take to make entering a grain bin safer, he said.

“The most important rule and this is the rule that’s broken the most often in agriculture, is if you’re going into that space it’s a minimum of a two-person job,” ​he said. “The person entering and there has to be an attendant outside who is right up top at the hole watching everything that we do, and if something happens it is not their job to go in after, it’s their job to call for help.”

Everyone entering a grain bin should be wearing a safety harness that is tied off, he added.

There also needs to be a “lockout, tag out”​ system in use to turn off power to the auger in a grain bin before someone enters it and to ensure that the power remains turned off, he said. The process is a way to ensure that others know someone has entered the grain bin.

“If you go into the bin with the auger running it can pull you to your waist in 15 seconds and completely submerge you within 30 seconds – things go pretty quickly in that respect,”​ Neenan said. And, if the auger is turned on while a producer is inside the grain bin it would be almost impossible to hear them shouting for help.

“A lockout, tag out kit at the hardware store is $30-35 – so it’s not tremendously expensive – compare that to what your life is worth,”​ he said. “It only takes a couple of seconds to lockout and tag out that auger.”  

Running the auger while someone is inside the grain bin is one way to create a crusting situation, where the floor of grain appears solid, but actually hides an empty space that will not support someone trying to walk on it, he said. “As we feed the bottom out through the auger it’s going to create a void space and that could be 3 feet deep or 30 feet deep, so when the farmer steps there it can’t support their weight and down they go.”

Before entering a grain bin, it is important to sample air quality and make sure there is at least 19% oxygen inside the storage site, he said.

Fatalities in 2020

There were several reported fatalities in grain bins throughout the Midwest in the latter half of 2019. Including one in July that saw Columbia Grain International receive a $190,000 fine from the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA​).

However, thus far into 2020, there have already been at least two reported grain engulfment deaths.

In Urbana, Indiana Daniel Haupert, 66, was reportedly trapped in a bin of soybeans at the beginning of January. Rescue attempts were not successful.

Similarly, near Manteno, Illinois grain producer Chester Cleveland, 58, was reportedly killed after falling from an inside ladder and becoming trapped in corn while working in a commercial grain silo.

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