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Grain Drowning

By Jerrold Tesmer

Fri, Sep 13th, 2013
Posted in All Agriculture

By Jerrold Tesmer, Extension Educator for Fillmore/Houston Counties

Farm Safety Week is a reminder that the fall harvest season is fast approaching. With the anticipation that we will have less than ideal crops to harvest this fall; i.e. wetter than normal corn to handle, it seems like a good idea to refresh our memory of the hazards involved in grain handling.

Grain bins, gravity flow wagons, and trucks are involved in grain suffocations or grain “drownings” each year. Grain that flows out from the bottom through an auger or by gravity is much like quicksand. An adult can be pulled under the grain’s surface in a matter of seconds and small children can also be quickly suffocated. Keep children out of bins, wagons, and trucks. If you have to enter a bin to check storage conditions, shut off and lock out all unloading equipment. And treat the bin as you would any dangerous, confined space.

Increased storage capacities, larger and faster handling capacities and automation contribute too many potentially hazardous situations during the harvest and storage season. Today’s large augers can transfer from two to four times as much grain as the augers of the past. Also, using automated equipment often means a farmer works alone most of the time.

Suffocation, resulting from grain drowning, is probably one of the most common causes of death in and around grain bins. These accidents typically occur when the victim enters a bin of flowing grain, is unaware of the potential hazard, and is pulled under and covered with grain in a few seconds.

The typical round, flat-bottomed grain bin draws grain from the top center and forms a vertical cone when emptying. The 8-inch auger, common on many farms, can transfer 3,000 cubic feet of grain per hour (52 cubic feet per minute). Your body volume, which is about 7 cubic feet, can be completely submerged in grain in about 8 seconds. Because of the tremendous force flowing grain exerts on your body, you are totally helpless to escape once you are trapped knee-deep in the grain.

Crusted, spoiled grain can also result in grain bin suffocation. As grain is removed from the bin, a cavity develops under the crusted surface. Unsuspecting victims walk on the crusted grain, break through, become submerged in the grain, and suffocate.

If you become trapped in a bin of flowing grain with nothing to hold onto but you are still able to walk, stay near the outside wall. Keep walking until the bin is empty or grain flow stops. Also, if you are covered by flowing grain, cup your hands over your mouth, and take short breaths. This may keep you alive until help arrives.

Suffocation doesn’t have to happen. Follow these safety rules to protect yourself and others: Never enter a bin when unloading equipment is running, whether or not grain is flowing. Keep children out of bins while unloading and loading. Forbid them to play in hopper wagons and on hoisted grain beds. Grain flow can cover them quickly, before anyone realizes what is happening.

Don’t enter a bin with unloading equipment without locking out the control circuit. Be especially careful around automatic unloading equipment. Never count on a second person outside the bin to hear your shouted instructions. Equipment noise may block out or garble your calls for action or help.

Always have three people involved when entering a questionable storage situation. It takes two people outside to lift one person from the inside on a rope and safety harness. Then, one can go for help, while the other gives preliminary aid.

Always be cautious about walking on any surface crust. There’s little chance of survival if the crust breaks and you plunge into flowing or hot grain.

If a person becomes submerged in grain, begin rescue operations as rapidly as possible. If the person is totally covered, turn on the dryer blower and move some air into the bin. Always assume that the person trapped in the grain, even if completely submerged, is alive.

The most successful way to rapidly remove a victim is to cut large holes around the base of the bin, approximately 5 feet up from the base. (Always beware that if you cut too many holes, the bin may collapse on you.) Cutting holes reduces the volume of grain from the bin in the shortest period of time. Gain access into the grain bin side walls by using the front-end loader of a tractor, an abrasive saw, or an air chisel. A cutting torch is a last resort because of the dangers of fire and explosions from dust and fumigant residue.

When you must enter the grain bin, have several people assist you from the outside. At least two people should be available. Enter with a rope and safety harness so they can lift you out in case of an accident.

Do not attempt a rescue in an oxygen-deficient atmosphere. Call your local emergency rescue team. They have the training and equipment to do the job safely.

A portion of this information came from David E. Baker, Department of Agricultural Engineering, University of Missouri Extension. Have a safe fall harvest!

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