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Grain Bin Safeguards

The rescue of a farmer trapped in a grain bin near Newton, Iowa, in September 2014 was remarkably rare good news. Working together, the Kellogg and Newton Fire Departments used a grain rescue tube to extricate Rick Nearmyer. The tube had been donated to the Kellogg Township Fire Department by Sully Farm Supply in Sully and the community of Newton. 

Both fire departments had received training in proper use of the rescue tube, but it was their first use of it in a farm incident.

Rescue tubes sell for $2,000 to $4,000 and are only effective for a partially submerged victim. The Res-Q Tube that helped save Nearmyer’s life was manufactured by the GSI Group in Assumption, Illinois. Rescue tubes (also known as cofferdams) also are available from KC Supply Company in Kansas City, Missouri, and the Indiana-based Liberty Rescue Systems in Brookston.

More than 900 grain bin entrapments have been reported in the U.S. since 1964, according to Purdue University’s Ag Safety and Health Program. Almost three fourths of these have resulted in death. That makes prevention the primary goal. 

Zero entry is the best management practice. 

“My first advice is to stay out of grain bins if at all possible,” says Bob Aherin, University of Illinois Extension safety specialist and professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering. “That’s not always possible, so one of the most critical things to remember is to never go into a bin when grain is flowing out.”

New Cages, Steps, and Platforms

As farm bins increase in size and scale, safety risks are growing exponentially. Larger auger-handling capacity also accelerates the speed of an entrapment. Unfortunately, safety design features aren’t keeping pace with a bumper crop of these bin innovations.

This year’s late, wet harvest is a red-flag indicator of a potential spike in entrapments in 2015. An abundant crop with a lower harvest price means more grain will be stored. Fatal bin incidents and entrapments rise as grain is stored over longer periods and at less-than-ideal conditions.

“The key to preventing grain entrapment is maintaining grain quality with proper aeration and temperature,” says Wayne Bauer, Star of the West Milling safety and security director, Frankenmuth, Michigan.

Farmers today are increasingly able to harness technology that eliminates the need for them to enter a bin. This includes an array of remote-controlled sensors and monitoring devices. 

Safe entry is a critical issue. Members of the Grain Safety Handling Coalition in Illinois have trained 972 farmers and commercial operators in safe entry and other procedures, including an OSHA-approved overhead anchor point and lifeline system.

“If you must enter a bin, it’s essential to wear a lifeline if there’s more than four feet of grain,” Aherin says. “If you’re entrapped without a lifeline, your chance of survival is low – around 20%.”

New grain bin training modules and videos on safe entry, lock out/tag out, lifeline demonstration, entanglement hazards and guarding, fall hazards, and prevention are posted at

Bauer urges farmers to provide hands-on grain safety training to employees. For instance, body harnesses are required safety gear, but they aren’t one size fits all. They also must be readily available when needed.

Aherin agrees. “Farm employers with fewer than 11 employees are exempt from OSHA enforcement, but not from liability in case of an injury or fatality if they’re not following recognized bin safe work procedures,” he says.

Retrofit Old Bins

Many commercial bin companies are incorporating new standard-design parameters into their new bins. These include top and side access doors, work platforms and handrails, anchor points, and ladders.

These safety features also facilitate access for trained emergency rescuers.

The bin on the Mark and Sue Miller farm near Madison, Nebraska (pictured on the facing page) was retrofitted with an Operation FarmSafe grant, sponsored by Successful Farming magazine and funded by Nationwide Agribusiness Insurance.

Guardrails were installed around the roof ladders and lids. “We wanted it to be safer when Mark climbs to open or close lids, or to get grain samples,” Sue Miller says.

They also installed bin-level indicators to reduce the need to climb the bins as often during unloading.

Anchor points can be added if the roof peak will support it, says Jeff Decker, GSI Group. He sells a grain bin fall restraint system through his business, Decker Consulting and Investigation.

Bauer would like to see bin design changes to improve the safety of components of reclaim systems, the sweep auger, size and spacing of sump holes, and the auger below the bin.

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