Grain bin safety: Training, awareness is key

09/24/2010 @ 3:57pm

On a hot, humid July day in Glen Haven, Wisconsin, fire department volunteers trained for an unprecedented emergency: a grain bin extrication.

Just two hours to the south, the Lanark, Illinois, fire department conducted a similar rescue session that same day.

Ten days later, the Illinois volunteers received a call that put their training to the test. They saved the life of a 20-year-old Mt. Carroll man. But two others were fatally trapped in a bin.

The difference between a rescue and a recovery mission is measured in seconds. Sometimes it also comes down to emergency training and equipment.

Grain bin fatality rates have risen since 2009’s soggy harvest season, which forced producers to store grain at less-than-optimal moisture levels.

In 2009, 38 fatalities were recorded by Purdue University’s Agricultural Safety and Health Program.

“It’s the highest number since 1993, when there were 42,” says Bill Field, Purdue University safety specialist, West Lafayette, Indiana.

Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana reported the highest number of fatal and nonfatal incidents in 2009.

Rescue Training Is Available

Glen Haven fire chief and farmer Lynn Kirschbaum says the Illinois tragedy hit close to home. He joined the fire department in 1988 and has served as fire chief since 1999.

“It’s not easy to get ag-related training,” Kirschbaum says “When I read last spring in Successful Farming magazine about an ag safety training center in Peosta, Iowa, I called right away. We’re just across the river.”

His next goal is raising funds to buy a rescue tube to share with nearby communities. Many rural volunteer fire and rescue teams lack the budget for training; a $2,700 rescue tube is out of reach.

Kirschbaum raised $800 from local businesses, farmers, and the Grant County Farm Bureau to pay for 22 firefighters from Glen Haven and neighboring Cassville and Bloomington to complete the rescue training.

Dan Neenan, manager of the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety in Peosta, conducted the Glen Haven training with a grain-engulfment simulator, and rescue tube.

“The simulator is small enough that we can load it on a 20-foot trailer and deliver our education to firefighters in other towns,” Neenan says. “It lets them prepare for what they might run into on a call. For many fire and rescue personnel, grain engulfment is a first-time experience.”

The equipment was donated in 2009 by Grain Systems Incorporated, Growmark, and Nationwide Agribusiness.

The six-hour training includes how to extricate a partially engulfed victim using a rescue tube. If a victim is submerged, rescuers must cut V-shape holes in opposite sides of the bin, letting grain flow out.

3 Grain Storage Hazard Situations

Purdue’s Bill Field says grain storage hazards often stem from three situations.

  • Flowing Grain: Unloading equipment creates a funnel-shape flow. Flowing grain may be waist high in 15 seconds; after 30 seconds the victim may be engulfed.
  • Collapsed Grain Bridge: Out-of-condition grain forms a crust during winter storage – freezing and then thawing. It creates pockets and large chunks of grain below the surface.
  • Grain Wall Avalanche: Spoiled grain adheres to bin walls. If it’s loosened, it may cause an avalanche.

“We need to get the word out to farmers that it’s a serious issue, especially when grain is out of condition,” Field says.

Field says 74% of entrapments from 1964 to 2005 resulted in death. In 2009, only 42% resulted in fatalities. He attributes the higher survival rates to safer confined-space entry procedures and more training on entrapment extrication.

Kirschbaum thinks rural fire and rescue teams must join forces to update their skills and equipment. Until a rescue tube is affordable, one option is to build a plywood tube. “The seal isn’t as good, and it works against the victim,” he says.