In a three-week period last summer (2010), seven people died in grain bin engulfments in the Midwest. This tragic loss of life led to the formation of the Grain Handling Safety Coalition (GHSC), a consortium of public and private organizations who hope to work together to reduce or prevent grain bin accidents and fatalities through education and outreach.
"I was contacted by a number of different organizations when two young men from Mt. Carroll died in a grain engulfment in late July," says Robert Aherin, a professor and Extension agricultural safety specialist at the University of Illinois. "In addition, Catherine Rylatt, the aunt of one of the young men killed in the accident, called me. Catherine has a public health degree, and she understands some of the basic issues. She felt a real need to educate others about grain bin safety."
Aherin and Rylatt are now two members of the 15-member coalition that includes representatives from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA); the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH); the Grain Feed Association of Illinois (GFA); the Farm Bureau; the University of Illinois; the University of Iowa; Purdue University; Illinois FFA; Carle Hospital's Center for Rural Health and Farm Safety; Illinois Farm Service Agency; and the Illinois Department of Agriculture.
"Our initial intent was to get to know one another and learn what each group was doing in the area of grain safety," says Aherin, "then try to consolidate our resources to address areas of weakness. That's already started to happen."
An example of that cooperation came late last year, when OSHA and the GFA worked together to train OSHA inspectors in grain handling systems.
"We are also developing public service announcements that will inform the public of the coalition and its goals, as well as address specific issues related to grain bin safety," he says.
Aherin says the coalition hopes to reach the areas of population that have the greatest need: farmers, small elevator owners and the people they employ. "Older youth and seasonal workers employed during the busy time of year need to understand the risk that is inherent in working in grain bins."
Future plans for the coalition include a website on grain safety that will give the farming community access to training resources, publications and links to the different organizations involved in the coalition.
Aherin says there is interest in a national convention that would focus on issues of grain safety and agricultural confined spaces in general. Aherin is a member of a committee sponsored by the USDA that is focused on agricultural safety and health research and extension work. That committee has compiled a list of 13 priorities, and one of the priorities they are currently addressing is agricultural confined spaces.
"We are working on a white paper, and our hope is to collaborate with other groups (like the GHSC) to hold a national conference that will bring in researchers, educators and policy makers to look at where we are and where we need to be.
"There is also a real need to improve the safety design of grain bins," says Aherin. "We've been working on issues of grain safety for a long time and we've reached a lot of people, but we need to reach more," he concluds. "The procedures we are trying to teach take a little longer, but with such significant risk involved, you have to take the time to do it right. From a safety standpoint, you really have no other choice."