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Stay alert to grain bin hazards

When Pam Dowdy's husband left the house on the morning of August 12, he asked her to call the elevator. The Dexter, Missouri, farmer said he'd be home for an early lunch.

Eight months later, David Dowdy's place at the table remains empty.

"We knew the grain was crusted," she says. "I told him to wait until help got there, but he was in a hurry. When our son Matt found him a few minutes later, all he could do was hold his hand and tell him 'I love you, Dad.' "

More than 600 farmers over the past 40 years, including David Dowdy, have suffocated in flowing grain. This year may be more hazardous because so much of last fall's grain was wet at harvesttime.

"Many grain entrapments are fatal because farmers underestimate the tremendous force of flowing grain and how quickly they can be pulled under," says Bill Field, Purdue University Extension farm safety specialist.

In less than 20 seconds, a person standing in flowing grain would be submerged to the shoulders. After 60 seconds in a full bin, a person's head would be submerged about 6 feet below.

Most flowing-grain entrapments occur when a farmer enters the bin while the center unloading auger is running and the grain is above an adult's height.
Three other situations pose risks.

  1. Bridged grain that forms when moldy grain sticks together.
  2. Spoiled grain along a wall that breaks loose, causing an avalanche.
  3. Operating a grain vacuum in a bin. "The vacuum starts drawing grain from beneath, and a person sinks," Field says. "Trying to lift a heavy vacuum pipe forces a person into the grain."

He advises moving the vacuum intake frequently to avoid forming a cone depression and keeping the grain surface level. "Work from an outside wall and move inward," Field says.

The peak time for grain bin entrapment is late-winter through summer.
Cutting holes in the bin to remove grain from around the victim is the best rescue technique. Building a coffer dam around a partially engulfed victim and using a vacuum grain mover to remove grain inside the dam is another method.

Unfortunately, many rescuers aren't trained. For information on training, contact the Fire Service Institute at University of Illinois (217-778-6652) or the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety in Peosta, Iowa (888/844-6322).

Even when rescue efforts are successful, extrication can cause serious injuries.

"Once a person is buried up to about his chin in grain, it takes about 800 pounds of force to pull out a normal-size individual," Field says. "Most human bodies can't stand that kind of force."

He says permanent safety ropes may offer false security. A ladder inside a bin may be located too far away to reach.

The best way to avoid grain entrapment is to prevent stored crop from spoiling. If grain forms a crust, Field advises.

  • Before walking on grain, stand outside the bin and probe the surface with a pole.
  • Never stand on grain that is knee deep or higher with augers running.
  • Lock out and tag the electrical control circuit prior to entering a bin.
  • Do not work alone in a bin.

"Twenty years ago, David pulled a neighbor from a bin," Pam says. "It was too late to save him. People say they'll remember to be safe, but time goes by, and then it happens again to someone else."

When Pam Dowdy's husband left the house on the morning of August 12, he asked her to call the elevator. The Dexter, Missouri, farmer said he'd be home for an early lunch.

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