seal  Purdue News

May 10, 2004

Storage bins deadly if farmers go against the grain, expert says

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Stored grain provides an income source for many farmers each spring. For an unfortunate few, however, moving the leftover crop comes at too great a price.

Every year, grain bin accidents claim about two Indiana producers and around 14 farmers nationally, said Gail Deboy, a Purdue University agricultural safety specialist. Most fatalities involve farmers being buried in grain as they attempt to dislodge moldy and clumped corn from unloading equipment.

"One of the peak months for grain bin entrapment is June, after farmers have finished the planting season and they need to pay their bills," Deboy said. "They're moving a lot of grain that has been in the bin for several months, where it's had time to mold or get a little crusty. When a crust forms and those moldy clumps of grain go down into the unloading auger and plug it up, the farmer will enter the bin and try to remove the clog."

The danger comes when a farmer stands on the grain and prods crusty portions with a rod, Deboy said.

"If the farmer has left the unloading auger running and removes the plug at the inlet to the auger and grain flow starts again, the farmer can be pulled under the grain very quickly," he said. "Depending on the size of the bin and the size of the auger, a farmer can become trapped in less than five seconds. In 30 seconds or so, he can be completely buried in the grain."

Death often comes by suffocation, Deboy said. Even when rescue efforts are successful, extrication can have serious consequences. One trapped farmer suffered a severed spinal cord while being pulled from a grain bin, Deboy said.

"Once a person is buried up to about their chin in grain, it takes about 800 pounds of force to pull out a normal size individual," he said. "Most human bodies can't stand that kind of force. There have been rescue situations where workers tried to put a wench and a rope or harness around an individual and lift them up, and severely injured them."

Farmers also must be careful when using vacuum-type grain movers, Deboy said.

"We've documented nine entrapment cases where individuals were using a vacuum grain mover while standing on top of grain that was more than two feet deep," Deboy said. "The vacuum hose near their feet started drawing the grain out from under them, and they began to sink into the grain. Once they started sinking, the farmer tried to lift the heavy vacuum pipe up and only forced themselves further into the grain.

"Out of the nine entrapment cases involving vacuum equipment, eight were fatalities."

The best way to avoid grain entrapment is preventing stored crop from spoiling, Deboy said. He recommended farmers inspect grain often and move crop before mold sets in. If grain already has formed a crust, farmers should observe the following safety procedures:

• Before walking on moldy grain, stand outside the storage bin and probe the grain's surface with a rod or pole. Watch for overhead power lines and avoid contact. Break up clumps from a distance or from above with a pole.

• Never stand on grain more than knee deep from the bin floor with augers running.

• Lock out and tag out the electrical control circuit prior to entering a bin for repairs so that coworkers and automatic controls cannot start equipment.

• Do not work alone. Maintain visual contact with coworkers and utilize two-way communication.

• Use a safety harness fastened to a secure anchor when entering grain storage buildings and transport vehicles, and follow regular safety rules.

"It's also important to inform all workers and children about entrapment hazards," Deboy said. "Do not allow children to play or work in grain bins, wagons or trucks."

Of the 553 entrapment incidents the Purdue Agricultural Safety and Health Program has documented nationwide since 1964, 145 involved youth under age 16.

If a farmer becomes trapped in a bin with unloading equipment running, they should walk around the outer wall until the bin empties or equipment is shut down, Deboy said.

"Cutting holes in the bin to remove grain from around the victim is the best rescue technique but should only be performed by trained rescuers," he said.

"Building a coffer dam around a partially engulfed victim and using a vacuum grain mover to remove grain inside the dam is another successful approach. Care must be taken to prevent an avalanche of grain from further engulfing the trapped individual."

Other safety tips and rescue procedures are included in Purdue Extension Publication S-77, "The Dangers of Flowing Grain," by Bill Field, Extension safety specialist. The publication is available online.

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

Source: Gail Deboy, (765) 496-2377,

Ag Communications: (765) 494-8396; Beth Forbes, (765)
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