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Grain bin accidents are 100 percent preventable

By Keri Collins Lewis
MSU Ag Communications

MISSISSIPPI STATE – With Mississippi’s bumper corn crop on target to break records, proper post-harvest handling is essential, especially efforts to prevent deaths by grain entrapment.

As farmers plant more grain crops, on-site storage bins are popping up all over the state.

“We’re handling more corn than ever before in our history, and proper handling of all grain crops can help reduce the number of accidents related to grain bin storage,” said Jason Ward, an Extension associate in Mississippi State University’s Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering. “Grain bin accidents are 100 percent preventable.”

Ward said moisture, mold growth or grain degradation can clump together corn, rice, soybean or wheat grains. Temperature differences between air inside and outside the grain bin cause moisture to migrate either to the walls of the bin or to the center. Grain can stick to the walls or form a solid core within the bin that keeps grain from flowing smoothly while unloading.

Ward said farmers or employees sometimes climb into the bin and try to dislodge grain with a long metal pole, unaware of the potential dangers.

Grain bins, or silos, can turn into death traps when the grain breaks loose and turns into an avalanche, suffocating or crushing the worker. Air inside the tightly constructed bins can also be hazardous and flammable.

“If someone stands at the bottom and tries to get grain off the sides of the bin, he can become engulfed in grain when it gives way,” he said. “If he’s standing on top of a pile of grain to break through a crust, or a section of bridged grain breaks loose beneath him, he can suddenly fall into a cavity, with grain sliding in on top of him.”

A person can be entrapped within seconds. Because many farmers work alone and are not required to use safety equipment, the danger is even greater.

“I always say the first rule of entering a bin is don’t ever go into a bin,” Ward said. “Since that is not realistic, I tell people never to go in a bin alone. Make sure someone knows you are in there. Make sure the augers are turned off, locked and tagged with a note letting others know you are in the bin. Make sure the fans are turned on to keep fresh air circulating.”

Ward said a three-person team should work on the problem: one at the top by the door, one on the grain wearing a safety harness or rope, and one on the ground to get help if needed.

Several commercially made grain-rescue products, such as coffer dams, are available to retrieve someone entrapped in grain. They are required for larger, commercial grain operations that must follow the U.S. Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, standards. Ward and his MSU colleagues designed a low-cost coffer dam out of plywood and structural lumber. Instructions are available online from MSU’s Extension Service, Publication 2598, “Construction of a Low-Cost Coffer Dam for Grain Bin Rescue,” http://msucares.com/pubs/publications/p2598.pdf.

The coffer dam, which is essentially a portable tube, prevents grain from flowing against the entrapped victim. Grain can then be removed from inside the tube, creating a space around the victim and relieving the pressure that prevents escape.

While proper moisture management in silos keeps grain flowing, Ward said if grain becomes stuck, there are products on the market that can break up the grain without anyone entering the bin. Most of these require installation before the bin is filled.

Erick Larson, state grain crops specialist with MSU’s Extension Service, said proper handling and storage of grain crops after harvest protects both people and profit.

“Grain is a living organism, and we need to keep it dry and generally cool to maintain quality,” Larson said. “When temperatures go from 95 degrees in the summer to 25 in the winter, we can have problems with moisture condensation inside a bin or any storage device. Also, mycotoxins, especially aflatoxin, can jeopardize quality if the grain is not properly stored.”

Running fans to blow air through the grain in the bins keeps grain dry and at a stable temperature. The fans are usually at the bottom of the bin, under the ventilated floor.

“However, this may cause moisture to deposit in the top layer of grain and develop a crust, which can become a safety hazard,” he said.

Larson said many farms may not have a full workforce around at this time of year. A short staff means people may endanger themselves by working without a partner.

“Farmers are self-reliant, and often they get in trouble by tackling a chore alone rather than making sure someone is there to assist them,” he said. “They may not perceive it as a dangerous environment because grain storage is a new task for many Mississippi growers.

“Use common sense and knowledge of safety issues associated with working in grain bins. Keep the grain safe. Maintain your safety and that of your employees who are handling the grain,” he said.

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Released: November 15, 2012
Contact: Dr. Jason Ward, (662) 325-4148

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