Grain storage  entrapments/deaths don’t get much attention in the media because they don’t happen often (a farmer is more likely to be in an vehicle- or farm equipment-related accident), they aren’t high profile and there has been little university interest and no funded research into numbers/causes.
Still, says Matt Roberts, an Indiana farmer, every year farmers die or narrowly escape death in grain storage bins, and more cases of deaths/entrapments are being reported at commercial grain elevators.
Roberts, who himself had a near-miss in a grain bin, undertook an extensive study of grain storage accidents while in a master’s program at Purdue University , and now does safety presentations around the country.
As a result of the project, he recently said, “We now have the largest database on grain entrapments, both farm and commercial.”
Last year, there were 34 reported entrapments nationwide; 1987 was the worst year, with 47, followed by 1993, with 42.
By far the majority involved corn, says Roberts, but they happen with all grains. In several cases, people who were trying to rescue someone were themselves entrapped.
“There has been an upward trend in entrapments. Possible reasons are that more corn is being grown, with record yields, and thus more going into storage; corn is being stored longer; farmers are storing wetter corn; workers often have less farm experience and less awareness of the dangers in stored grain; and worker complacency about the dangers (we’ve been seeing more cases of managers being trapped),” he says.
Historically, Roberts says, entrapments were 70% on-farm and 30% at commercial facilities, but in recent years, that has changed to 43% on-farm and 57% commercial.
“This may be due to fewer but larger farms and increased inventory turnover at commercial facilities.”
Of the entrapments, 62% have been engulfments, with only a 12% survival rate; for partial entrapments, the survival rate has been 90%.
Fifty percent of entrapments occurred in facilities of 20,000 bu. or smaller, 77% in metal bins.
Entrapments in grain transport vehicles have also been a part of the problem, and they often involve children, who may be in grain trucks or trailers and out of sight of the combine operator.
“Unloading rates for newer combines are now pushing 4 bu./minute, which can quickly cover someone in a trailer,” Roberts says.
The average rescue time for an entrapped person is 3.3 hours, and unfortunately the person may be dead from suffocation and/or cardiac failure. Between 1964 and 2006, the average death rate from entrapments was 75%; from 1996 to 2006, 77%; and in 2007, 46%.
In many cases of entrapment, the person was working alone, with nobody around to help, Roberts says. “Relaxed compliance with workplace safety regulations has also been a factor, as has the increase of high-capacity grain handling systems.
“On-farm storage facilities are getting substantially larger; some are now over 100,000 bu. Commercial facilities often run 24 hours a day, increasing opportunities for accidents.”
Entrapment accidents also have occurred with bin unloading equipment and augers, Roberts says.
Among the main causes of entrapment:
- Flowing grain. “It’s difficult for most people to comprehend the tremendous pulling power of flowing grain. It’s a race you can’t win; in 30 seconds, you can be completely buried.”
- Collapse of a horizontally crusted grain surface.
- An avalanche in an outdoor grain pile.
- Being buried in grain transport vehicles.
- Structural failure of a storage facility (bin bursting).
- Using grain vacuums, which can suck a person in.
The most common rescue attempts involve cutting into bin walls to release grain around the entrapped person, Roberts says. The second most common practice is placing a retaining structure around the person.
Commercial devices, such as rescue tubes, are available to facilitate extracting someone who has been entrapped.
He says anyone entering a grain storage bin should always follow bin lock-out/tag-out procedures before going into the facility.
Rules for rescue of a person entrapped:
- Don’t enter the bin yourself.
- Shut down and lock out all equipment.
- Activate the local fire emergency rescue service.
- Turn on aeration fans.
- Assemble employees to determine who’s missing.
- Assess the situation and resources available to assist rescue.
- Implement a situation-specific action plan.
- Remove grain from around the victim, utilizing a grain rescue tube or retaining structure around the victim (don’t waste time trying to dig around a person without a retaining device or structure, Roberts says).