There is just something about a wagon full of grain that seems to be inviting to jump into and wallow about in it. The feel of the grain flowing like water through one's fingers and wrapping around one's feet is almost comforting. However those feelings of delight can quickly turn into feelings of fright. What many forget or do not realize is that flowing, moving grain can shallow a person in seconds, especially when the grain is been drain from below such as in a grain bin or grain wagon.
Once one is pulled down into a grain pile, it can be nearly impossible to pull that person out. Even a person who is only buried in grain to their waste, it requires hundreds of pounds of pull force to bring them up and out of the grain, more force than a single person can produce to rescue another person or themselves from the grain mass. The pressure grain puts onto a person's body buried under several inches of grain acts like a boa constrictor. As a person breathes out, the grain pushes in toward the body to fill the space that once was occupied by the person's expanded chest. Once the grain is in place, the person can no longer breathe in again and the person will expire due to the lack of oxygen. This can happen quite rapidly. What started out to be fun can end quite tragically.
Deaths in and around grain bins have made monthly news in many Midwestern states. As reported by the OSU Ag Safety Program, in the last 10 years, Ohio fatality reports show five people died from auger entanglements, four died from a fall or being struck by an object at the grain bin, three died from suffocation and two from unknown causes. And these are just the cases in which the cause of death was reported to have occurred in and around grain bins there may be many more that have gone unreported.
There are several ways that a person may become buried, engulfed or entrapped in a grain mass (pile). The person:
- stands on grain that is moving/flowing from the bottom of the pile (e.g. grain being emptied from a grain bin from below). The moving grain acts like quicksand and buries the person in seconds.
- stands on or below a bridging condition. Bridging occurs when grain clumps together, because of moisture or mold, creating an empty space beneath the grain as it is unloaded. If a person stands on or below the bridged grain, it can collapse, either under the person’s weight or unexpectedly, thus, burying the person
- stands next to an accumulated pile of grain on the side of the bin. The grain pile can collapse onto the person unexpectedly or when the person attempts to dislodge it.
Flowing grain will not support the weight of a person. It will pull a person down and into the grain mass as it flows. The "suction" action is strong enough that a person cannot swim, climb or walk against it and get out. As grain flows out of a bin the victim will be pulled down and under very quickly with little or no time to react. It only takes 3 or 4 seconds to become helpless in flowing grain. In about 20 seconds, an average-sized man can be completely buried and shortly thereafter, suffocated.
A person cannot be pulled from flowing grain without risk of injury to the spinal column if the grain is at waist level or higher. The grain will have a very strong grip on the body. Research has shown that up to 400 lbs. of pull is required to extract a body from waist-deep grain. That is more than enough force to permanently damage the spinal column.
Dangerous grain flow situations
Dangerous flowing grain situations are:
- grain flowing downward in a bin
- grain flowing downward out of a rail car, truck or wagon box
- grain flowing downward in an auger-pit
A person should never enter any of these containers when the grain is flowing. The last two of the above scenarios for being buried or entrapped in grain could be very common conditions in grain storage bins this year. In some states, the corn and soybean crops are far behind in their development and maturation. As a result, a lot of grain could be harvested at higher than preferred moisture contents and the wetter the grain is, the greater the chances are that it could crust (bridge) over or stick to a side of the bin in a tower formation creating highly hazardous conditions.
There are several safety measures that one should adopt to reduce one's chances of becoming buried or entrapped in grain:
- Children should not be permitted to work or play in an area where there is flowing grain or the chance of flowing grain. Flowing grain is an attractive nuisance and is dangerous to people of all ages, especially children. Children should never be allowed to play in grain wagons.
- All persons involved in situations where there is flowing grain should be warned to stay out of the grain.
- Warning decals should be placed at all bin entrances, on all rail cars, truck and trailer boxes used for grain hauling and on all gravity discharge wagons.
- Never enter a grain bin without stopping the auger first and then using "lock-out/tag-out" procedures to secure it. Use a key type of padlock to securely lock the switch for the auger in the off position. Attach a tag to the locked switch so that other people involved can positively identify it.
- Never enter a grain bin alone; have at least two people at the bin to assist in case problems arise. Use a safety harness or safety line when entering the bin.
- Install a permanent life-line hanging from the center of the bin for a person to grab on to. Tie slip-reducing knots about one foot apart along the life-line. A life-line in a grain bin does not make it safe to enter the bin and should not lead workers to taking undue risks because of a false sense of security. Life-lines are commercially available through safety equipment retailers.
- After the harvest season, control the access to grain storage facilities to prevent grain entrapments.