You Can Die in a Grain Bin in Less Than 60 Seconds

by Tom Bielema on September 16, 2013 · 3 comments

It can happen to you.

Five seconds. That is how quickly a worker can become engulfed in flowing grain and be unable to get out.

Sixty seconds. That is how quickly a worker can be completely submerged in flowing grain. More than half of all grain engulfments result in death by suffocation.

With the agricultural season still in full swing, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is predicting a record-breaking corn crop in 2013. In the heartland, that is great news for the farming industry − but it also underlines the unique hazards facing workers in the grain handling industry, especially in the storage of grain.

Grain bin dummy

The Grain and Feed Association of Illinois uses a dummy inside a training grain bin at the Asmark Institute, in Bloomington, Ill., to demonstrate to farmers how quickly someone can be completely engulfed in grain. It is also used by rescuers to practice lifesaving extraction techniques.

In mid-July a 55-year old worker died after becoming engulfed in grain at a bin in Sidney, Ill. Earlier, this year deaths and injuries have occurred on farms in Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota when workers have become engulfed in grain storage bins or suffered injuries in other grain handling incidents.

This is not new: In the past 50 years, more than 900 cases of grain engulfment have been reported with a fatality rate of 62 percent, according to researchers at Purdue University in Indiana. And in 2010, at least 26 U.S. workers were killed in grain engulfments − the highest number on record.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration responded immediately to the dramatic increase in the incidence of grain entrapments with an initiative that included enforcement, outreach, compliance assistance and education. Warning letters were sent to more than 13,000 grain elevator companies to comply with OSHA’s common-sense standards. A targeted Local Emphasis Program for Grain Handling Facilities was then launched in 12 states that focuses on the grain and feed industry’s six major hazards: engulfment, falls, auger entanglement, “struck by,” combustible dust explosions and electrocution hazards.

We also published a hazard alert, updated our Web information on grain handling and developed and distributed a Grain Bin Entry wallet card for workers − especially young workers. And today, OSHA awarded Susan Harwood Training and Education grants to Perdue University and the University of Illinois to conduct education and outreach to grain elevator owners and workers on preventing entrapments. This summer, we launched and continue to wage grain bin safety campaigns in several states to help spread the word among employers and workers.

Following these efforts, there has been a decrease in the number of entrapments. If we – OSHA, industry and the community – don’t maintain our vigilance, however, the death rate will rise. So far this year OSHA has investigated four deaths from grain engulfment, with other investigations pending. Additional deaths have occurred on family farms, where OSHA does not have jurisdiction.

Workers from teens to senior citizens have been injured or killed by these hazards. I believe all of them could have been prevented had the employer ensured OSHA standards were followed. You can never assume that it is safe to enter a storage bin, and so following  important precautions that must be met before worker entry can mean the difference between life and death.

This week, from Sept. 15-21, OSHA is supporting the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety’s National Farm Safety & Health Week and its focus on protecting agriculture workers. Observed annually since 1944, the theme this year is “Working Together for Safety in Agriculture.” Agriculture recorded the highest fatality rates of any industry, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, at 21.2 per 100,000 full-time workers in 2012. OSHA’s updated agriculture Web page is filled with resources, including resources to reach the more than half of farmworkers who are Hispanic.

We will continue to work with organizations such as grain handling associations, local farm bureaus and educators and trainers in the agri-business community to get the word out about grain handling safety.

Workers’ injuries and deaths don’t just hurt workers, co-workers and their families; they impact their communities and leave everyone wondering what more can be done to prevent such tragic incidents. By complying with basic, common-sense safety standards, we move closer to preventing the next tragedy and statistic. In the span of seconds, we can also save a life.

Tom Bielema is OSHA’s area director Peoria, Ill.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Rijke Studenten September 21, 2013 at 11:33 pm

This actually happened in a town nearby me. A guy got trapped in a grain silo and the local farmer even tried to get him out using his tractor. Very sad story, 2 people died.
Avoid dangers at the workplace. Secure yourself!

2 James Meade September 24, 2013 at 11:29 am

In 2010 there Purdue tallied 26 grain bin engulfment deaths. The same year NHTSA counted 32,788 highway deaths. The government needs to carefully consider where the best return on it’s safety money lies.
DOL makes noises that it would like to extend OSHA grain bin jurisdiction to family farms. Purdue recently concluded that about 1/3 of grain bin engulfments are in corporate enterprises like commercial grain elevators and about 1/3 are unknown. The cost to the taxpayer and the farmer to install, implement and enforce farmer compliance would be out of all proportion to the return. In fact, most farmers would not comply unless forced to and the only result would be the farmer would be punished when he, his family or his employee was injured or killed. It would not prevent deaths, only add more misery to a situation without helping any.
The way to prevent grain bin engulfment is to maintain clean, dry grain per industry standards. The angle of repose of corn is 23%, soybeans and wheat 25%. Bins are designed so that clean grain will flow out except for some on the bottom that is in no danger of engulfing a person who is cleaning the bin out. When grain gets wet it may bridge or adhere to the walls and not flow. That is when a person may be tempted to enter a bin. So, the best way to prevent bin deaths is to keep grain clean and dry. Put your effort into techniques and devices that tell a farmer the grain condition so he can influence it before it goes bad.
I have no problem with oversight of large elevators where management and workers may not always share the same knowledge and interest. At the farm level, that is very rarely the case and we farmers should be provided access to information and training but not subject to DOL jurisdiction any more than we now are.
At a time when the government is running a deficit, we need to carefully consider how much money we are willing to spend for the amount of return society expects.

3 H.Schubert January 8, 2014 at 1:51 pm

@James -not that I doubt your experience, but at least the comparison you use at the beginning of your commentary is kind of misleading…
To put (few) engulfment deaths against many highway deaths (without even differentiating the many different highway users) does not make complete sense to argue against OSHA regulations. There is oviously a big difference of the number of humans ‘on the street’ versus people working at grain elevators.
The ratio could very well show that the DOL has a good reason to have OSHA create necessary guidelines etc.
However your point regarding education and posting guidelines in general, is obviously important and it is a bit surprising that there are still so unecessary deaths in silos occuring.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: