There are countless stories about grain bin deaths around the country — even as first responders and safety educators work tirelessly to combat these tragedies. The University of Minnesota Extension, along with North Dakota State University Extension, created a webinar in January which examined grain bin safety issues and what can be done to keep producers safe when dealing with grain bins.

The webinar featured Rich Schock, captain of the Sheyenne Valley Technical Rescue Team in North Dakota; and Ken Hellevang, agricultural engineer with NDSU Extension. Schock has been a rescue technician specializing in grain entrapment and rescues for the past 10 years.

Schock’s interest in grain bin safety and rescue is a personal one. “In 2008 I lost a fellow firefighter,” Schock said. Schock was on the first truck that arrived at the scene. The firefighter who died was working in a grain bin on the family farm when a grain avalanche occurred — burying him in 350 to 400 bushels of corn.

“It hit our department really hard,” Schock said. After that, a group of firefighters got together to work on safe entry procedures in grain bins. “These accidents are happening more frequently,” he said.

Hellevang has been an NDSU Extension agent for over 40 years and has seen a lot of change in grain handling. When he started off his career, 3,000-bushel capacity bins were the norm. Now 50,000 to 60,000 bushel bins are routine. “The size of the facility has increased; but probably more importantly is the size of the conveying equipment. So where we used to be moving a couple hundred bushels an hour, now we’re moving thousands of bushels an hour. So the grain that’s flowing within the structure is flowing much more rapidly than what it used to,” Hellevang said.

With grain now flowing quicker and bins having more capacity, issues can arise. “We used to talk about being able to go in a bin and walk your way out of a flowing grain accident. That isn’t going to happen today. That grain is flowing so rapidly that we routinely talk about it being quicksand,” he said.

Hellevang noted that in 2019 there was some corn harvested with less than ideal moisture levels. “We had a lot of corn harvested, placed into storage when it was higher moisture content,” he said. When corn is at 23 to 24 percent moisture or higher that corn doesn’t flow. That can lead to bridging and compaction issues in the grain bin.

“Many people aren’t monitoring the grain going in or the moisture content,” Hellevang said. All that can result in problems in the grain bin which may lead to someone entering the bin in an attempt to get the grain moving again.

Schock is an ardent supporter of the lock out/tag out system when someone needs to enter a grain bin. That method includes utilizing tags with each farm worker’s name on it. For example, when someone throws the breaker for the bin, they would clip their tag right there. It’s a visual alert letting others know what you’re doing so someone doesn’t come along and turn things on while you’re in the bin.

Communicating with others who are working on the farm is essential when there’s an issue in the grain bin. Schock pointed out it’s imperative a person doesn’t ever enter a grain bin until there’s someone else at the site. For anyone who has to enter a grain bin, they should have their personal protective equipment which includes a harness and small section of rope.

What happens if someone is trapped in a grain bin? “Emergency services should be the first call made,” Schock said. He understands that emotions are high, and your instinct is to try to rescue the person trapped; but calling 911 is the best thing you can do. Trying to rescue them yourself may put the person trapped, yourself and the first responders in danger.

Hellevang explained that unloading the bin to rescue a person trapped has to be done in a way as to quickly remove the grain while keeping the bin structurally safe. “We don’t just want to punch a hole in one side and let all the grain flow out there. It not only is going to be flowing past the individual that’s in the bin and causing stresses there, but there really is a concern about the structural integrity of that bin,” he said.

Removing grain safely is imperative in a grain bin rescue.

There’s much to be learned regarding how to keep safe in and around grain bins. With more grain entering the bins now more than ever, there’s greater chances of issues arising. Having clear and concise grain bin safety protocols on the farm is essential to ensure those working around grain bins are better protected.   

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