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Leading the fight against grain bin deaths

Gloria Hafemeister
Correspondent
Volunteer rescue personnel from Iron Ridge participated in hands-on training for using a grain bin rescue tube to rescue someone trapped in grain.  The training session also included hands-on training for safely cutting into a grain bin as well.  Similar trainings took place recently in Chilton and Campbellsport.

IRON RIDGE – Every year thousands of farmers and commercial grain handlers risk their lives by entering grain bins to remove clumped or rotted grain.

As rural communities have come to know all too well, an accident in a grain bin can quickly turn deadly.

In just seconds, adults can sink to their waist in flowing grain, rendering them completely trapped without the proper rescue devices.  These accidents result in dozens of lost lives each year and deaths increased in 2019 and early 2020 due to the wet harvest.

Rescue workers are frustrated by this because too often when they get a call to rescue someone in a grain bin it becomes instead a body recovery and not a rescue.

Life-saving partnership

To lead the fight against these common accidents a leading insurer of farms and ranchers, Nationwide, in partnership with the National Educational Center for Agricultural Safety, awarded 41 departments across the U.S. with life-grain rescue tubes and hands-on training to prepare them to respond when grain bin accidents happen.

In Wisconsin, Iron Ridge, Chilton and Campbellsport were selected to receive the life-grain rescue tubes.

About twelve volunteer fire-rescue personnel came to Iron Ridge last week to formally accept the gift and learn how to use the new equipment and get some hands-on practice in grain rescue.  Joining them were members of the neighboring Neosho Fire and Rescue.

Iron Ridge Assistant Fire Chief Jason Keller says, “For decades farmers have been the backbone of rural volunteer fire departments across the nation.  Here in Iron Ridge some of our biggest supporters have been the farmers.  We want to do what we can do to protect farmers and their workers.”

Keller also credits Farmers Feed and Grain of Allenton for supplying the grain used in the training and transporting it to the Iron Ridge training facility.   Local farmer and rescue volunteer Ken Weninger supplied the grain bin sheets for the department to practice cutting a bin open.

Following the training Keller said, “We look forward to expanding on our grain bin rescue capabilities and providing life saving equipment for the agricultural workers in our area and Dodge County.”

The training was provided by Brad Kruse, of the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety, located in Iowa.

Before the participants had an opportunity for hands-on practice with the new rescue tube they took part in classroom training on the basics of saving someone trapped in grain. 

Prevention first

The best way to insure that farm workers are safe, of course, is to prevent the accident in the first place.

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

Many of the statistical incidents occurred because of crusted grain that prevented the grain from flowing.  Workers went into the bin to free the grain but were sucked in faster than they could react.

Another significant cause is grain sticking on the sides of bins. It can break loose and cause an avalanche, burying a worker in a split second.

Some accidents occur when unloading equipment is not turned off and locked out before entering a bin. The flowing grain acts like a funnel.  When that happens the grain is like quick sand. All it takes is one foot covered with 12 inches of grain and the worker is trapped.

Must be a better way

When rescue crews arrive, the weight of grain creates a huge force and it is 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.

Iron Ridge volunteer fire and rescue personnel officially accepted the gift of a grain bin rescue tube provided by Nationwide insurance.

Over the years rescue workers have used a variety of equipment for grain bin rescues.  Plywood sheets to hold grain back while workers attempt to remove grain help some but too much grain gets past them and the process simply takes too long.

Then companies came up with the idea of rescue tubes but they are difficult to get into the grain around the victim.

The equipment provided to the departments this year is different. It is made up of six panels that can be easily linked together to form a tube in the bin. 

Kruse demonstrates how rescue workers begin with one panel behind the victim to prevent an avalanche coming down on the victim, triggered by rescue workers movement in the grain.

Rescue personnel begin by making a wide circle around the victim and then gradually moving panels toward him to get close enough to link them together.

Once they are linked they use two hand-held grain scoops to remove corn around the victim. If the victim is conscious workers hand him the scoop to remove the grain, gradually removing it scoop by scoop from each side.

Kruse also demonstrated a rescue auger that can be used to remove the grain more quickly. It is a short light-weight auger than can be lifted over the side of the tube and operated with a hand-held brushless electric drill. He suggests using brushless drill to prevent the possibility of sparks that could ignite dust.

If the auger is not available workers could use a shop vac but Kruse points out that often there are not long enough cords readily available to take a shop vac into a bin and they also present more of a possibility of a spark.

Using the auger, the workers remove grain up to the victim’s knees. At that point they ask the trapped person to shuffle his feet to get out of the grain.

Time is crucial

Time is crucial in a rescue like this. The surrounding grain that entraps the individual places large amounts of pressure on the body. That pressure can lead to health risks the longer they are exposed to it.

A volunteer rescue worker who went into the demonstration bin for the rescue training came out just minutes later with obvious indentations on his legs from the pressure of the corn against his legs while he was engulfed.

Kruse points out that when a victim is engulfed for a long period of time, especially beyond the waist, the pressure of the corn can create tissue damage and pain. Swelling will occur immediately after the pressure of the corn is off the body and if the victim has been engulfed long enough that can actually result in the skin breaking open and the onset of infection.

He stressed the importance of trying to keep the victim moving his toes and fingers.

These volunteer rescue workers would rather have farmers pay more attention to safety factors when working with grain-filled bins. 

 Before entering a grain bin

Here are some of the things to think about before entering a grain bin:

  • Turn off and disconnect, lock out or block-off all powered equipment, including augers used to help move the grain;
  • Do not walk on or “down” grain to make it flow;
  • Use a body harness that has an anchored lifeline or a boatswains chair when entering from a level at or above stored grain;
  • Do not enter without having rescue equipment and a trained observer stationed outside the bin or silo who is in constant contact with the person in the bin;
  • Test the bin’s air to ensure there is enough oxygen and no toxic and/or flammable gases. Get a monitor that tests for four gasses, not just oxygen.
  • Do not enter onto or below bridged grain and when grain is built up on sides;
  • Confirm the farm’s issued entry permit that all safety precautions are in place and it is safe to enter.