Understanding Ag Confined Space Safety

Beware of Hazards When Working in and Around Grain, Manure Storage

Russ Quinn
By  Russ Quinn , DTN Staff Reporter
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Grain bins and manure storage structures are considered confined spaces, and those who work in and around these facilities need to follow safety rules closely. (DTN photo by Pamela Smith)

OMAHA (DTN) -- Confined agricultural spaces such as grain bins and manure-holding facilities can pose several safety hazards that farmers and ranchers should always be aware of when working in and around these structures.

Each type of confined space has its own unique hazards. In grain bins, for example, flowing grain can bury someone in a matter of seconds, causing them to suffocate. Manure pits often have a toxic atmosphere that could kill people in a few seconds.

In a recent ag safety webinar titled "Confined Spaces in Agriculture," an expert shared some safety practices producers can use to minimize the risk of injury when working in different types of confined spaces.


Dan Neenan, director of the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety (NECAS) in Peosta, Iowa, said during the webinar that there is significant danger involved with both grain storage structures and manure storage facilities. Those working around both need to know proper safety practices.

In a grain entrapment, a worker is in a race they cannot win. The grain will flow quickly, and pulling a person out often is not possible, as a human does not have the strength to pull another person out of flowing grain.

Neenan said the most common type of grain entrapment is when someone enters a bin and there is a crust on the grain and an open void under it. The person can fall through the crust and become entrapped. Often, the person may fall many feet downward through the grain.

The other common grain entrapment accident is when someone is cleaning out a bin and grain is crusted in a slope along the wall, he said. Workers could become trapped as they work to move this column of grain if the crust breaks and the grain flows rapidly to the center of the bin.

Even outdoor piles of grain can be dangerous, Neenan said, as workers can be trapped by flowing grain if the pile is crusted.

The leading cause of grain entrapment is out-of-condition grain. The size of the out-of-condition grain will continue to grow larger in a bin, making it extremely unsafe. The best way to avoid an accident in this situation is to stay out of the bin, Neenan said.

"If you don't go into the bin, you can't get trapped," Neenan said.

He said keeping grain in good condition is not only a good idea for having quality grain, but it is also key for keeping those who work with it safe.

There are newer products on the market that help safely move out-of-condition grain, Neenan said. For example, there are products available that mount to the center sump of a bin that break up clumps of grain as it is unloaded. Another company produces small robots that can be put into the grain to break up areas of out-of-condition grain.

NECAS has provided rural fire departments with rescue tubes that go into the grain and protect the person from flowing grain until they can be rescued. Three hundred tubes have been given away in 23 states over the years, Neenan said. NECAS has donated 68 grain rescue tubes in 2023 so far.


Manure pits are another type of confined space in agriculture. And much like grain storage structures, these facilities can be extremely dangerous.

Neenan said ag workers can fall into a manure pit and drown in liquid manure. Often, though, they die from exposure to toxic gases that can build up in the structures.

Hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, methane, ammonia and carbon dioxide are the most common gases released in manure pits, he said. Each gas works slightly differently to remove oxygen from the air.

At low concentrations, these gases can make those who work within these structures sick, affecting respiratory tracts, he said. At high concentrations, the gases can kill a person in seconds.

Neenan said those who work around manure pits should know the risks before they begin working. Many tragic stories have people dying in these facilities because they rush in to save others only to be overcome by toxic gases themselves, he said.


Neenan also had some general safety rules as harvest gets underway.

A fully stocked first-aid kit should be available to those bringing in the harvest. You never know what you will need but having enough of everything in a first-aid kit is a good idea, he said.

Farmers should also always know the address of where they are working. Many rent farms, and knowing the correct address can save time for emergency personnel trying to locate someone after a 911 call.

Neenan also suggested farmers recharge all fire extinguishers before harvest to ensure they are ready to go. They should keep one in the shop and two in the combine, he said.

Russ Quinn can be reached at russ.quinn@dtn.com

Russ Quinn