sealPurdue News

March 2001

Corn fungus a deadly threat to crop and man

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – A fungus that attacks corn threatens more than just the crop itself. Diplodia ear rot can create dangerous working conditions for farmers trying to remove infected corn from storage facilities.

Farmers can be injured or killed attempting to break up clumps of moldy grain blocking unloading equipment in grain bins, says Doug Kingman, Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service farm safety specialist.

"In the last 30 years in Indiana, an average of one farmer a year has died in a grain bin," Kingman says. "Three-quarters of those deaths occurred during the unloading of a grain bin. And in 53 percent of those cases, the farmers were working with corn, much of which was out-of-condition."

Most grain-related accidents occur in the winter months, as grain is unloaded to sell or feed livestock. In a typical scenario, a farmer enters a storage facility with the unloading equipment running and is pulled into the grain flow. Unable to escape, the farmer is buried alive. Death often comes from suffocation.

Because Diplodia infection is more widespread this year, the risk of grain bin mishaps is greater. Caked corn must be dislodged manually. That's where farmers can run into trouble, Kingman says.

"Some farmers respond to this situation by entering the bin and clearing the blockage with a long pole or pipe," he says. "Sometimes they'll stand in the middle of the bin trying to dislodge the clump.

"Once grain flow is re-established, it takes only four or five seconds for a person to submerge to the point where he or she is helpless. And it takes fewer than 20 seconds to be completely submerged in flowing grain at the center of the bin."

Kingman offers the following tips for preventing grain bin accidents:

• Never enter a bin when unloading equipment is running or without locking out the control circuit if the equipment is automatic.

• Be especially cautious when working with grain that is moldy, crusty or blocking the unloading flow. Use a long pole from outside to test grain surfaces.

• Beware of steep grain piles. If possible, dislodge them from above the pile with a pole rather than atop the pile with a shovel.

• Never work alone – enlist the help of at least two other people.

• Do not assume a helper outside the bin can hear you. Equipment noise may interfere with your instructions.

Immediate action is necessary if a farmer becomes trapped in flowing grain, Kingman says.

"First, shut off all equipment, then call for emergency assistance," he says. "If the bin is equipped with an aeration blower, turn it on to increase the flow of air through the bin. This may help the entrapped person to breathe."

Assemble any rescue equipment before emergency personnel arrive, Kingman says. Front-end loaders, shovels, plywood for coffer dams and portable augers can aid in the rescue effort.

"The only successful technique for removal of a person submerged in grain is to cut the bin and remove the grain from around the victim," Kingman says. "This should be accomplished by the trained rescuers."

One way to ensure corn is safe for unloading is stopping Diplodia in its tracks, Kingman says.

"You'll be in better shape if you can catch the molding problem before it occurs," he says. "The routine inspection of grain and grain sampling are two good preventative measures."

More information about grain bin safety can be found in Purdue Grain Quality Task Force Fact Sheet 8, "Grain Storage Problems Are Increasing the Dangers to Farm Operators." The fact sheet is available through county Extension offices or online.

To learn more about Diplodia, refer to Grain Quality Task Force Fact Sheet 45, "Diplodia Ear Rots in Indiana." The fact sheet can be downloaded online.

Source: Doug Kingman, (765) 494-5013;

Writer: Steve Leer, (765) 494-8415;

Related Web site:
Purdue University Agricultural Safety and Health Program

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