Prevention, training can keep team safe and alive on the farm

Gloria Hafemeister
Pittsville Fire and Rescue District’s safety instructor Chris St. Pierre fits a safety harness on Columbus farmer Brady Weiland during a grain bin safety demonstration at one of the Education Hubs at the recent PDPW Business Conference in the Wisconsin Dells.

WISCONSIN DELLS – Farm accidents happen in a split-second. During the recent PDPW annual conference in Wisconsin Dells Gerald Minor, chief of the Pittsville Fire and Rescue District and Chris S. Pierre, safety instructor, demonstrated ways to prevent losses and save lives by asking farmers and their workers to help demonstrate dangers and rescue techniques.

Participants observed an accident simulation and then practiced first-aid response so everyone involved in a farming business is prepared to save a team member’s life by acting quickly and safely.

“When we get a call about someone trapped in a grain bin we have to make a decision if this is going to be a rescue or a body recovery," Minor said. "If you don’t want to experience this, stay out of the bin or wear a harness.”

Chief Gerald Minor of the Pittsville Fire and Rescue District demonstrates one of the tools available for rescuing someone trapped in grain or protecting rescue workers entering a grain bin. The arm attachment can be used to prevent a victim or rescue worker from going deeper in the grain.

Zero-entry mentality

Statistics show that most of the deaths occur on farms that have less than ten employees as 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.

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

The only true way to help reduce the risk of grain entrapment is to strongly discourage people from entering a bin, unless it’s absolutely necessary. That means developing a “zero-entry mentality” with a focus on key areas to help keep you and others out of grain bins and harm’s way. 

Many of the statistical incidents occurred due to 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  hazard leading to entrapment is grain sticking on the sides of bins, that can break loose causing 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, and the grain is like quick sand. Rescue workers say just one foot covered with 12 inches of grain is enough to trap a worker inside a grain bin.

When rescue crews arrive, the weight of grain creates a huge force, making it impossible to pull a person out. If the person is hooked up to a mechanical device to pull him out, the force will pull the body apart.

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

Pittsville's safety educator St. Pierre demonstrated how rescue workers use a rescue tube. During the educational session, several farm workers volunteered to help him with the demonstration.

PDPW board member and Columbus, Wis., dairy farmer Brady Weiland, demonstrates how to use an auger to remove grain from a bin during a rescue at the recent PDPW Business Conference in Wisconsin Dells.

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 the panels are linked together, workers 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.

St. Pierre also demonstrated a rescue auger that can be used to remove the grain more quickly.  The short, light-weight auger can be lifted over the side of the tube and operated using a hand-held brushless electric drill. 

Time is crucial

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

Rescue workers would rather have farmers pay more attention to safety factors when working with grain-filled bins. 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.  Minor stresses, “Make sure when you turn off the power that you know what is supplying that power.”
  • Confirm the farm’s issued entry permit, that all safety precautions are in place and it is safe to enter.  Lock and tag out and keep the key. 
  • 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.
  • 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 onto or below bridged grain or when grain is built up on sides.
  • Think about dust and mold.  Breathing in grain dust and molds can cause severe respiratory problems. Always use proper personal protective equipment when cleaning out bins or handling dusty or moldy grain.
  • Before going in, 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.

Minor said there are different types of gas monitors available and recommends, “When you buy one get reps from different companies to come out and show you how to use it and explain what it does.”

He said there are different types of gases and acceptable levels. Dangerous gases in a manure pit are different than gases present in a silo or grain bin.

He stresses the importance of training farm workers how to use the meters and read them properly.  Without a proper understanding of reading the meter workers may develop a false sense of security.

“Just because a meter says it is okay to enter does not mean there isn’t deadly gas present,” he notes.