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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.
Wet grain is major risk
The growth in grain-related incidents is linked to volatile prices and rapidly evolving ethanol markets.
“There's never been a time in history when more storage was being built on farms,” Field says.
Grain stored at high moisture is a major risk factor. The late, wet harvest in 2009 resulted in out-of-condition grain. In 2010, 52 grain entrapments and engulfments were documented – the highest ever. Half were fatal.
The expansion of livestock operations, especially dairy and hogs, has amplified the need for liquid manure storage. An estimated 80,000 U.S. livestock facilities have manure pits.
When these confined space hazards on farms collide head-on with safety lapses, most rural firefighters aren't trained or equipped to handle the complex emergency extrication. Suffocation occurs so quickly that rescue often turns into recovery.
Grain handling is involved in 80% of confined space fatalities. The risk rises in spring and summer, as bins are emptied. Prevention, the first line of defense, requires farmers to maintain a razor-sharp focus on grain quality. “There's a direct correlation between out-of-condition grain and entrapment risks,” Field says.
Other safeguards include:
● Staying out of bins as grain is removed.
● Installing a lock-out/tag-out system with a padlock on the auger off position.
● Using temperature/moisture monitors.
● Maintaining weatherproof seals/roofing.
● Staying out of bins when working alone.
“A lifeline and harness require a second person to maintain tension on the line while the user is inside,” Field says.
For more tips, including a safety training slide set, visit www.grainquality.org.
Keep a lid on manure pit risks
Most manure gas fatalities occur during summer, as underground storage and sump pits are emptied. These injuries and fatalities account for 10.7% of confined space incidents. A Purdue University study shows an upward trend in the death rate between 1974 and 2004.
Individual cases often extract a huge toll. In Virginia in 2007, four family members and an employee lost their lives. “Over one third of manure pit incidents involve would-be rescuers,” Field says.
Hydrogen sulfide is colorless and heavier than air. Its rotten-egg odor deadens sense of smell above 100 parts per million, causing respiratory paralysis in seconds. To reduce risk, never enter a pit:
● during agitation or pumping,
● if it contains more than 6"of manure,
● if manure is foaming,
● without operating all ventilation,
● without another person present,
● before monitoring toxic gases/oxygen.
For more, see manurepitsafety.psu.edu.
“Without monitors, the only safe way to enter is to wear a self-contained breathing apparatus and safety harness with a lifeline and mechanical lift,” says Dennis Murphy, Pennsylvania State University professor and safety specialist.
Toxic gases also form in silos during the ensilage process and as forages ferment. Nitric oxide, combined with oxygen, produces nitrogen dioxide, known as silo gas.
Roger Vetting, 57, a Silver Lake, Wisconsin, farmer died earlier this year. His body was found near a silo. The cause of death was chemical asphyxia.
Training lowers liability
Safety specialists say training and education efforts aren't keeping pace with the needs posed by modern storage facilities. “A lot of farmers live with the hope that nothing happens,” Murphy says. “In this day and age of litigation, they can't afford that attitude.”
In Mt. Carroll, Illinois, last year, two teens (one under the legal age limit to work in confined spaces) died in a bin. The commercial grain bin had been sold to a group of farmers, but it's unclear who owned grain in the bins. OSHA has levied $555,000 in fines.
This high-profile case resulted in the formation of a 15-member Grain Handling Safety Coalition in Illinois.
A new grain safety DVD also has been developed by the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) and the National Grain and Feed Foundation.
Field says 11,000 copies will be sent to FFA chapters and ag Extension educators this month, thanks to Purdue University, NCGA, and other sponsors.
USDA also has confined space fatalities on its radar screen. “It's a priority because of high fatality rates, lack of surveillance, confusion over exempt vs. non-exempt facilities, and multiple fatalities per case,” says Bob Aherin, University of Illinois professor and safety specialist.
Field, Aherin, and Murphy serve on a national committee that's writing a report to identify key issues related to confined space hazards, research gaps, educational needs, and design standards.
Overdue safety changes
Aherin says there's a critical need to improve bin safety design. “There are no good attachment points for a fall restraint system,” he says. “A big problem is retrofitting bins with anchor points.”
In 2003 Field proposed an American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) grain bin standard including a recommendation for a shutoff switch at the bin door. It was opposed by industry, but it's now being reconsidered.
Penn State led a successful effort in 2010 to pass the first ASABE engineering standard on safe ventilation of manure storage pits. Murphy is taking a new manure pit simulation trailer developed at Penn State on the road to demonstrate it.
“More farmers die from tractor rollovers,” Field says. “But confined space incidents prompt more emails and calls.
Farmers are on the front lines of these rescues as firefighters, first responders – and victims. “Our son, Michael, who farms with us, is a volunteer,” says Mary Fortin. “He's taken grain rescue training.”
Bill Fortin is a survivor. On the day six years ago after he nearly died, Fortin finished emptying the pit. But the 64-year-old doesn't down-play the dangers. “I'm not afraid,” he says. “But I am respectful of what can happen. Some things in life you don't forget. This is one of them.”