Innovation helps save lives in grain bin entrapments

When a grain bin accident occurs in a rural community, the first line of defense is often the local fire department. Because the grain’s weight and frictional characteristics make it impossible for first responders to simply pull a victim out, special equipment and training are required for a successful rescue. Many fire departments lack both.

“If a 165-pound person is trapped in grain to the waist, it takes 325 pounds of pressure to pull them out,” says Dan Neenan, director, National Education Center for Agricultural Safety (NECAS). “If trapped up to the neck, it requires 625 pounds of pressure. In either instance, you could injure the victim by trying to exert that much pressure.”

From 2010 to 2019, there were 330 grain entrapments, according to the 2019 Summary of U.S. Agricultural Confined Space-Related Injuries and Fatalities. While the numbers have gone down year-over-year, a recent uptick in documented cases is concerning. In 2019, there were 38 grain entrapments, an increase of eight from the prior year – 23 were fatal.

To raise awareness and help save lives, Nationwide teamed up with NECAS and other collaborators to begin Grain Bin Safety Week in 2014. A critical component of the annual program is the Nominate Your Fire Department contest. In its eighth year, the contest awards the Great Wall of Rescue tube and hands-on training to first responders. 

“Our mission is to try to save lives through education about the hazards of going into a grain structure,” says Paul Stevenson, senior risk management consultant, Nationwide. “Our goal is that someday we will not need to give away rescue tubes because every farmer and grain operation will know it is not safe to be inside a grain bin.”

Great Wall of Rescue

Developed by Illinois-based Eastland Fabrication, the Great Wall of Rescue is a system of individual panels built around the victim, joined via ball-and-socket connectors. It’s then driven into the grain, creating a barrier that relieves pressure on the victim and serves as a retaining wall so grain can be removed from around the trapped person. 

“Once placed, the victim can help scoop grain out of the inside or a grain auger can be used to evacuate grain until he can climb out or be lifted out,” Neenan says. “Before rescue tubes were created, plywood or ambulance backboards were used. The problem with those options is that the grain leaks back into the space where the victim is. If the victim needs to take a break, the leak never stops, and the area fills back up.”

Open from January 1 to April 30, the Nominate Your Fire Department contest receives about 1,000 nominations each year. “It’s very difficult to choose the winners as everyone who is nominated has a need,” Stevenson says, adding that the tube and training cost about $5,000.

To date, 152 fire departments across 29 states have been awarded tubes and training; 41 were announced in 2020, the most ever in a single year.

A Successful Rescue

A recipient in 2015, Minnesota’s Glenville Fire Department put its tube and training to use less than two years later when a farmer from a neighboring town became engulfed up to his neck in corn. 

“In a rural setting, a lot of the time you know the people you’re responding to on a first-name basis,” says Matt Webb, Glenville’s fire chief. “You know their family. You know their kids. It shakes everyone in a small community.”

Because Webb and his team, all volunteers, had the proper equipment and know-how, a life was saved that day.

“For the rescue to turn out the way it did, there was no better feeling,” Webb says.

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