Bill Fortin says his memory of that day six years ago is “like it happened yesterday.” The Danville, Iowa, farmer lay face down in the gravel outside the hog barn, unable to lift his head.
“I was vividly aware of everything, but I couldn't move,” Fortin says. “I had a metallic taste in my mouth, but I couldn't smell anything. I wondered if it was the end.”
Fortin had been emptying the pit under the barn – something he had done 50 times in 25 years without incident.
He left the barn after starting the pit agitator. But when he heard the hogs squealing, he hurried back in. He saw several dead hogs, foaming at the mouth.
Suddenly he felt dizzy. He took off, running and stumbling, toward the open side curtains. Diving over the 2-foot cement wall, he landed outside on his stomach, knocking the breath out of him.
“I had to get out,” he says. “I didn't want anybody to find me there. Whether I died or not, I didn't want my two sons, my wife, or anybody else to try to help me and be overcome like I was.”
Fortin lost 37 hogs that day. But he survived the near-death experience caused by the closing of an automatic curtain that allowed a buildup of toxic gases.
Today, he and his wife, Mary, look forward to passing the farm on to the next generation. “It bothers me to this day,” Mary says, choking back tears. “We came so close to losing him.”
Many dangers in agriculture are highly visible. But agriculture ranks third in fatalities that lurk within confined spaces: grain bins, manure pits, and silos. These are silent killers, stealing your breath away within seconds.
“Unlike many other types of farm-related fatalities and injuries, the confined space problem is growing,” says Bill Field, Purdue University professor and Extension safety specialist.
Purdue's Agricultural Confined Spaces database has tracked the human toll, starting with grain incidents in 1978:
● Nearly 900 fatal and nonfatal engulfments, entrapments, falls, and entanglements in grain storage and handling facilities.
● Over 130 fatalities and injuries involving livestock manure handling and storage.
● 115 fatal and nonfatal ag transport vehicle incidents.
Other confined spaces – silos, sump pits, chemical tanks, bulk milk tanks, wells, and cisterns – add another 115 fatalities and injuries to the total.
“The data is incomplete because there's no official reporting system, but it's the best estimate we have,” Field says.
The upward trend of the past two decades is likely to continue, as farms increasingly require more complex confined space storage facilities – from grain, chemical and manure storage to ethanol plants and methane digesters.