Working safely with grain in confined spaces

Carol Spaeth-Bauer
Wisconsin State Farmer
A flowing column of grain in a bin will pull a person down to knee level in 15 seconds and completely bury him or her in 30 seconds. Viroqua Fire Department members are pictured training on using a grain bin rescue device.

A flowing column of grain in a bin will pull a person down to knee level in 15 seconds and completely bury him or her in 30 seconds. It's a race that can't be won. That's why AgriSafe Network held a webinar on Feb. 22 during Grain Bin Safety Week. 

Following on the heels of Grain Bin Safety Week is the American Farm Bureau Federation Ag Safety Awareness Program (ASAP) week, created to bring awareness to safety and health issues facing agriculture. Issues addressed include hearing and respiratory health, impaired driving and fire safety.

AgriSafe presenter Dan Neenan, manager at the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety, led grain bin industry workers and managers through a program to help them identify hazards associated with confined space work, understand the process for entry and lock out procedures and other aspects of working in the grain industry. 

With 593 deaths in agriculture in the United States in 2016, a "slight uptick from 2016," Neenan said, or 23.2 deaths per 100,000 workers, agriculture is one of the most dangerous industries in the U.S.

Along with defining what a confined space is and what constitutes entry into the confined space, Neenan listed five automatic rules to follow when working in a confined space. 


A confined space is a space large enough that someone can enter and perform work, but has limited or restricted means of entry and exit and is not designed for continuous human occupancy.

There is also the Permit Required Confined Space, which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines as having one or more of the following:

A confined space is a space large enough that someone can enter and perform work, but has limited or restricted means of entry and exit and is not designed for continuous human occupancy. A fire in that space will use up oxygen leaving dangerous carbon monoxide.
  • Contains or has the potential to contain a hazardous atmosphere
  • Contains a material with the potential to engulf someone
  • Has on internal configuration that might cause entrapment or asphyxiation due to inwardly converging walls or a floor that slopes downward and tapers to a smaller section
  • Contains other serious safety or health concerns 

While some might roll their eyes when they hear talk about permits, Neenan likes "to view that permit as a cheat sheet."

"If I don't enter into a bin every day, if it's every two months, or every six months that I'm entering the bin, I might forget one of the things we need to do to be able to enter," said Neenan.

While most people may consider entry into a space as passing through an opening into the area, any part of the body passing through the opening is considered entry into a confined space, Neenan explained. 

Five rules

"In a confined space, we have five automatic rules that are going to come into play here," Neenan said. 

File - A safety official discusses a grain bin rescue.
  1. While OSHA does not have a set age limit for entering into grain bins, Neenan recommended 18 years of age as the minimum age for entering a confined space. 
  2. Lock out and tag the power source to the auger. "If someone goes into the bin with the auger running, they could be pulled in to their waist in 15 seconds and completely submerged within 30," said Neenan. 
  3. Check for air quality samples to make sure there is at least 19.5 percent oxygen in the bin. Some extension agents are keeping air monitors that farmers can check out, which also means it will be calibrated each time by people at the extension.
  4. Everybody going in needs to wear a harness and tie it off so they can't go underneath the level of the grain inside the bin. 
  5. Entering into a confined space is a minimum of a two-person job — the person entering the confined space and a reliable attendant outside "whose one and only job is to watch that person as they are inside," said Neenan. "And if they become unresponsive or become trapped in the grain, the attendant's job is not to go in after them, but to call for emergency services. 

Stories, statistics

Neenan punctuated the importance of these five rules with examples driving home the necessity to follow each rule. 

He told of a fatality about four years ago where there was a fire in a bin. The fire used up all the available oxygen in the bin but left carbon monoxide. 

"If you have a carbon monoxide detector in your house, either set to go off at 35 parts per million (PPM) or 50 PPM, the bin that had the fire in it had 500 PPM in there," Neenan said. "As they went down the steps, they simply ran out of oxygen."

The rule Neenan thinks is broken the most is having two people part of a confined space entry job. 

"Look at last year," Neenan pointed out. "About 50 percent of the folks who died were rescuers, so we need to keep them safe as well."

Becoming entrapped and going under grain isn't always a death sentence. There is breathable air in the grain. If farmers wearing a hat can get their hat over their mouth and nose, it will prevent grains from blocking air passages.

Neenan said a man from Kansas was trapped in 6 feet of soybeans for three and a half hours and lived because the soybeans pushed the stocking cap he was wearing over his mouth and nose so he was able to breath. 

"Just because someone goes under, does not mean they will perish," added Neenan. 

Workers cut a hole in the side of a grain bin in order to rescue a man trapped inside. Similar tragedies could be prevented by following grain handling safety guidelines.


With all this danger, why do farmers go into grain bins? The most important contributing factor is out-of-condition corn. 

"The grain starts to clump and mold and doesn't flow down, that is typically why a farmer is going to get in the bin," Neenan explained.

Neenan said 2010 was the worst year on record in America for grain fatalities because the 2009 harvest was late and had high moisture content. 

Most people become entrapped if the grain goes above their knees but can get out if the level of the grain is below their knees, according to Neenan. 

There are three main reasons people get trapped in grain.

  1. Flowing grain - if the auger is running it will pull grain straight down, everything else will flow to the middle. A human, being the heaviest, is going to get pulled down and trapped, said Neenan.
  2. Crusted grain - If the top of the grain crusts, the auger feeds out from the bottom, creating a void beneath the crusted top, which collapses when a person enters the bin. The person will fall, have injuries from the fall and more grain will be dropped on him or her. 
  3. Avalanche - grain stops coming out of the auger and the farmer goes in to find grain crusted along the sides of the bin. "He's going to take a pole or a shovel and knock it loose," said Neenan. "It's going to avalanche down on them."

However, there is a new emerging condition in agriculture that needs to be talked about, Neenan added — texting and using a grain vacuum. 

Neenan gave the example of being inside the bin, using a vacuum when a text is received. If the person reads and responds to the text, he or she will typically put the hose in the grain at their feet. As the person is reading and responding to the text, the vacuum is sucking grain out and pulling the person down, Neenan said.

"That's something to be concerned about," Neenan added. 


When it comes to rescuing an entrapped individual, Neenan pointed back to the five rules, specifically stopping and tagging out the auger and starting an aeration fan for proper air quality and having the attendant call for help. 

Rescue services should be identified prior to entering a confined space. 

A grain bin rescue device can be aligned to form a wall, a tube or shapes depending on the rescue situation.

The worker assigned to remain outside the confined space should know emergency procedures, but should not enter the confined space if someone becomes entrapped. Once emergency personnel are called, someone needs to direct the crews to the proper bin and explain how the person got trapped. 

Neenan said it's important to have the ability to lock out (disable) the auger, but be able to start an aeration fan, therefore, circuit breaker boxes need to be marked clearly. 

Neenan touched on other hazards when working with grain, such as temperature extremes, humidity affecting workers, flammable atmospheres and toxic atmospheres. 

For more information on confined space entry, permits and rescue visit or