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Safety first when emptying grain bins

Gloria Hafemeister
Grain storage bins are beneficial for storing the abundance of grain produced in the state but they can also be dangerous places.  The Wisconsin Agri-Business Association together with OSHA hosted a safety workshop last week at the Arlington Research farm to remind grain facility workers and farmers who store grain of the hazards associated with these storage bins.

ARLINGTON - Wisconsin’s 2016 grain harvest was slowed by rain that not only kept farmers out of muddy fields, but also resulted in a lot of corn that may have been stored wetter than usual.

Overly wet corn held in storage facilities means a greater potential for it to crust or stick to the sides of the bins. When grain does not flow like normal, there is a greater risk of grain bin accidents if grain handlers do not take time to remember the immense dangers associated with entering a bin.

The Wisconsin Agri-Business Association wants its members to be safe. WABA also knows that the OSHA compliance ranks as one of the most important issues in the feed, seed and farm supply industries. To help these businesses and individuals stay safe and remain in compliance with OSHA rules, WABA employs Jim Nolte, a full time, professional safety director to help.

On Tuesday, March 28, WABA hosted a grain safety program at the Arlington Research Farm where Nolte and Leslie Ptak, a compliance assistance specialist with OSHA, shared information on preventing accidents associated with grain handling facilities.

Each year there are injuries and deaths — mostly deaths — associated with grain handling. In 2010 there was a significant rise in incidents involving grain handling. Accidents can occur in the grain bin, silo, hopper bottom, feed bin and gravity box or truck.

Workers aren't the only ones who are killed or injured; sometimes the victims are children who get into grain. In fact, 20 percent of the deaths from grain suffocation were children.

Statistics show that most of the deaths occurred on farms with less than 10 employees. Those operations are not required to comply with the OSHA rules, training and inspections. However, that doesn’t mean they should ignore the basic rules of safety.

Many of the statistical incidents occurred when workers entered the bin when crusted grain prevented the grain from flowing. While trying to free the grain, workers were sucked in faster than they could react.

Another factor associated with grain deaths occurs when grain sticks on the sides of bins. This accumulation of grain can break loose and causean avalanche, burying a worker in a split second.

)   Lockout devices are important for anyone considering allowing a worker to enter a grain bin for any reason. Have them available and use them when maintaining equipment as well.

Some accidents happened when workers failed to turn off and lock out unloading equipment before entering a bin. The flowing grain acts like a funnel.

“It’s like being in quick sand. All it takes is one foot covered with 12 inches of grain and you are trapped," Nolte said. "It takes two to three seconds to react and within 22 seconds your entire body will be buried.”

While it is a noble effort for fire departments to train for grain-bin rescues, Nolte says "The reality is, it is not a rescue but a body recovery.”

Nolte said that the weight of grain creates a huge force which makes it impossible to pull a person out.

If the person is hooked up to a mechanical device to pull him out, the device will pull the body apart," he said.

Reasons for entering a bin

Workers enter bins for a variety of reasons: plugged sump, grain unloading problems, bin sweeps, caking.

“Before anyone can go in,  you need to determine if it is safe. You need to know the angle of repose which is the angle at which grain will no longer flow,” he said.

He points out that grain flows vary. Corn will flow at 21-23 degrees but barley and oats flow at 28 degrees. If grain is higher on one side than the other there is a great potential for an avalanche.

Guessing the angle of repose is not good enough, Nolte said.

"There are laser instruments and phone apps that will determine the angles and charts that calculate the bin size and angles," he said.

He recommends that when building a new storage bin it is good to look at adding more sumps, preferably better and bigger ones, putting zero-entry sweeps and eliminating top-entries on bins.

Good advice

When unloading, Nolte suggests running bin fans while unloading will help to keep the grain moving. If there is a problem removing crusted grain he recommends hiring a professional crew to deal with the issue or using grain vacuums.

When someone does enter a bin, he stresses the importance of taking the time to do things right. Those steps include turning off and locking out all powered equipment associated with the bin, including augers used to help move the grain, so that the grain is not being emptied or moving out or into the bin.

Prohibit walking down grain and similar practices where an employee walks on grain to make it flow.

Never enter a bin without a body harness with a lifeline, or a boatswain’s chair, and ensure that it is secured prior to entering. However, Nolte points out that having a harness will not necessarily insure safety.

"Roofs aren’t strong enough to hold a worker. Also, the anchor point must be directly above the worker but as he walks around the bin, he will not be protected because there will be too much slack in the rope," he said.

There are retractable devices on the market that work like a seat belt. While they will work if there is a sudden jerk, the device will not work if a worker is being sucked steadily into the grain.

An observer should be stationed outside the bin or silo being entered by a fellow employee. Ensure that the observer is equipped to provide assistance and that their only task is to continuously track the employee inside the bin. Prohibit workers from entering bins or silos underneath a bridging condition, or where a build-up of grain products on the sides could fall and bury them.

Train all workers for the specific hazardous work operations they are to perform when entering and working inside of grain bins. Be sure to test the air within a bin or silo prior to entry for the presence of combustible and toxic gases, and to determine if there is sufficient oxygen.

If these conditions are detected by testing, vent hazardous atmospheres to ensure that combustible and toxic gas levels are reduced to non-hazardous levels, and that sufficient oxygen levels are maintained.

Ensure a permit is issued for each instance that a worker enters a bin or silo, certifying that the precautions listed above have been implemented. A permit forces those involved in the incident to consciously think about the dangers and precautions before attempting to go in.

“If you had a wet harvest last year, anticipate that there could be a problem," Nolte said. “Do what you can to remove the grain, anticipate problems and have a plan in place.”