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Against the Grain: Minnesota mother turns her grief into a mission to make grain bins safer

The report of an 18-year-old caught in a grain bin auger came into the Nicollet County 911 dispatcher at 3:46 p.m. Thirteen minutes later, Deputy Michael O’Gorman was the first to arrive on the scene. The Saint Peter Volunteer Fire Department also responded. 

They were too late. Landon Gran, who had been cleaning out a neighbor’s grain bin when his legs became entangled in the auger, had succumbed to his injuries. The last time he was seen alive was around 12:30 p.m., according to the accident report.

The hardest part, says the teenager’s mother, is knowing her son’s death could have been prevented had the necessary precautions been in place.

“I’m still very angry because Landon should have never been left alone. He died on the floor of a nearly empty grain bin all by himself,” says Michele Gran. “My whole world revolves around being a mom, and I can’t help wondering how long Landon suffered. Did he cry out for us?”

Killed on August 14, 2019, Landon was to begin his senior year at Saint Peter High School in Saint Peter, Minnesota, in a matter of days. He was one of 11 equipment entanglements that year, according to the 2019 Summary of U.S. Agricultural Confined Space-Related Injuries and Fatalities compiled by Purdue University. Five were fatal.

The summary also reported 38 grain entrapments, eight falls into or from a grain storage structure, and five asphyxiations due to deficient oxygen levels or toxic environments. Of those, 34 were fatal. In 2019, Minnesota had the most documented cases of all types followed by Iowa, Nebraska, and Wisconsin.

“It was a tragic year for our state,” says Nick Frentz, a Minnesota state senator. “We knew we needed to do something about it.”

The Rule of 10

Since the 1970s, Purdue University has been documenting and investigating incidents involving grain storage and handling facilities both on- and off-farm. Today, the Purdue Agricultural Confined Space Incident Database (PACSID) contains 2,117 cases (from 1962 to 2019) that resulted in an injury or a fatality or required extrication by first responders. 

The summary also estimates, based on earlier research, that about 30% of incidents go unreported or are undocumented because victims and employers are reluctant to report near-misses or nonfatal incidents at operations not covered by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reporting requirements. The rider, which Congress attached to the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1976, prohibits the agency, or its state affiliates, from spending funds on the enforcement of all OSHA rules, regulations, and standards for farm operations with 10 or fewer nonfamily employees. Yet, the large bins on today’s farms pose many of the same risks as those at commercial facilities.

James Honerman, who is the communications director with the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, says there are no exceptions to this prohibition – even if it is a fatality.

“OSHA was notified of Landon’s death,” he says. “Unfortunately, we determined we couldn’t conduct an inspection due to the rider language.”

Although the lack of a comprehensive, mandatory incident/injury reporting system affects most of agriculture, there is little interest in changing this long-standing exception. The reality is farmers don’t want these burdensome regulations.

“It’s frustrating that there isn’t any accountability; yet, we have to live the rest of our lives without Landon,” Gran says, adding that she believes even the smallest operations should be regulated by OSHA. “I don’t want his death to be just another statistic. He was a son. He was a brother. He was a boyfriend. He was a friend. He is missed.”

Within days of losing Landon, Gran began channeling her grief to actively pursue change. Contacting state lawmakers and leaders of farm organizations, she advocated for a variety of grain bin safety measures including a mandatory buddy system, a safety harness requirement, added protections around sweep augers, and a wearable device that allows a trapped person to shut off the auger and call for help, among other things.

“Farmers are under considerable economic pressure, and I don’t think the State of Minnesota should be making mandates in this area right now,” Frentz says. “What we can do is help them take steps to make their on-farm grain storage safer and continue to make farmers aware of the dangers.”

Cost-Share Program Developed

In February 2020, Gran’s moving testimony to Minnesota lawmakers, alongside Frentz, led to a bill that provides $50,000 in funding to help Minnesota farmers purchase grain bin safety equipment. The Grain Storage Facility Safety Cost-Share program reimburses 75% of eligible expenses up to $400 per bin. It is limited to $2,400 per farm per year. To date, 73 applications totaling $57,825 have been received. Although the allocated amount has been depleted, private donations are extending the program’s reach. Applications are being accepted through June 30. 

In addition, the bill allocated another $50,000 for an outreach program, which may include creating and presenting a grain storage facility safety curriculum. Funds could also be used toward university research for an app that would remotely shut down a grain bin auger through a cell phone or other device.

“There are tens of thousands of grain bins across our state,” Frentz says. “We won’t be able to retrofit all of them, but education might help people think twice before getting into a dangerous situation.”

While Carol Jones would like to say training and awareness of the safety hazards are the answers, the retired Oklahoma State University professor says it is only part of the solution. 

“A big piece of the remedy is keeping grain in good condition, so you don’t have to break up clods or dislodge grain stuck to a wall,” she says.

Changing to a safety-minded culture is another part of the picture. “When workers firmly believe nothing is more important than their safety and are empowered to say no when they see a danger, we will have achieved a safety culture. We just aren’t there yet,” Jones says, adding that “I’ve done it all my life and never had a problem” is a statement she hears all too often.

“Our biggest competition isn’t another device that can do things ours can’t do. It’s the farmer who thinks this won’t happen to him,” says Chad Johnson, JLI Robotics. The Nebraska-based company is developing Grain Weevil, a robot that would keep farmers out of grain bins for good. JLI Robotics hopes to have a fully functional prototype, so it can begin on-farm trials and pilot projects by spring.

As a first responder who has had to deal with these incidents, Matt Webb says he wants a farmer to step back and realize that just because he was lucky 100% of the time before doesn’t guarantee he will see the same outcome the next time. “I want a farmer to think about that before he enters a grain bin,” says the fire chief for the Glenville, Minnesota, Fire Department.

“When we lost Landon, we lost a big part of our family. It’s difficult to get through a day without him,” Gran says. “If I can save one family from going through the heartache we’ve gone through, my fight for change will be worth it.”

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