I wrote a Machinery Link blog last week with data from Purdue University's Agricultural Confined Spaces 2019 report. Produced annually, it is an accounting of tragedy on the American farm, especially in the Midwest.
Confined spaces injuries and fatalities include grain entrapments, falls, entanglements and asphyxiations. When these "cases" occur (they are not accidents because they are preventable), everything changes -- among families and in communities: a newly empty chair at the coffee shop or an empty space on a church pew. Grain entrapments engulf a community in sorrow and loss.
This 2019 report on grain-related cases documents a nearly 10% increase in confined spaces incidents.
One author of the report, Bill Field, is a preeminent expert on grain incidents around the world. He was in his office this week, returning phone calls. One was to me.
Field examined his first grain incident in 1977. In that, a man died (it is most often men who die) in an 8,000-bushel bin filled with out-of-condition corn. "I remember firefighters crying because they did not know what to do," Field said.
The last few months have been busy for Field. "I'm most surprised of the incredible number of incidents from the last part of 2019 and into 2020," he said. He said he thought with planting season arriving, entrapment incidents would largely fade away. But he is still tracking cases. One occurred just last week. "The amount of immature corn is still causing problems throughout the Corn Belt," he said.
Minnesota is a particularly difficult spot this year. Fields said the state is generally in the top five of reporting confined spaces incidents. But it has now topped the list. These incidents are often due to farmers, sons or employees entering bins to clear voids over outlets or crusted grain from sidewalls.
On man died inside a grain bin when a column of corn fell onto him. Field said the roof leaked into the center of the bin, forming a 17-foot-4-inch-tall stalagmite of corn -- a column of corn rising from the floor. He was chipping away at it before tons of corn toppled onto him.
Soybeans have been a particular problem this year, Field said. That's true even in the South.
Field said some reports say the beans work like frozen slush. The soybeans are soft, wet, spoiled, full of trash and plant material, and that mass won't flow. An 80-year-old man became trapped in that slush. He climbed into the bin from a side door to knock down beans stuck to the wall. They did come loose and nearly buried him in an avalanche. Rescuers were hampered right at the first by that frozen, slushy mass.
"It puts firemen in danger," Field said. "Poor grain quality always increases the risk of entrapment."
When a farmer, farmer's child or employees die, they most often die alone -- scared and helpless. Of 1,200 grain entrapments documented, 800 died alone, Field said.
From the 1970s forward, Purdue University's Agricultural and Biological Engineering Department has been investigating incidents involving grain storage and handling facilities at both commercial and on-farm locations.
Beginning in 2013, the effort was expanded to include incidents involving grain transport vehicles (trucks, wagons, railcars); injuries occurring inside of confined spaces due to exposure to powered mechanical components, such as augers; falls from or into confined spaces; and other types of agricultural confined spaces, including forage storage silos, liquid storage tanks and manure storage facilities.
As of the end of 2019, the Purdue Agricultural Confined Space Incident Database held information on 2,117 cases between 1962 and 2019. Of these, 60% were fatal, a large majority involving grain storage and handling facilities. Field believes, too, that 30% of all cases go unreported or undocumented.
The 2019 report documented 67 cases of confined space incidents -- a 9.8% increase over 2018. That includes 38 grain entrapment cases (up 26.7% from 2018), eight falls into or from grain storage structures, five asphyxiations due to deficient oxygen levels or toxic environments, and 11 equipment entanglements, such as those involving in-floor and sweep augers. Fatalities numbered 39 in 2019, higher than non-fatal cases (28).
SOME "OK" NEWS
While grain entrapments accounted for 56.7% of all documented cases during 2019, that percentage fell below the historical average.
There were incidents in 15 states last year. Those with the most included Minnesota (13), Iowa and Nebraska (eight each) and Wisconsin (7). Four cases each were documented in Illinois, North Dakota and Ohio. The oldest victim was 82. The youngest, 11. All cases documented involved males only.
The 2019 entrapment report includes suggestions for managing grain that won't flow. These may not be the most profitable options, the report concludes. But they are intended to keep everyone safe. From the report:
-- Never enter a bin where there is evidence of crusting on the surface or within the grain mass. If grain is removed from the structure and the surface has not flowed inward --stay out. This is a clear sign that crusting is present and a void has formed over the outlet.
-- If there are any signs that the grain has gone out of condition, it needs to be removed immediately. The condition of the grain will not improve if left in storage. It will get worse.
-- Perform all observations or unplugging efforts from outside the bin, at the top access hatch. In some cases, long pipes, rebar or other probes can be inserted into the grain mass to break up crusted grain or trash that is plugging the outlet. Watch out for overhead power lines when handling these long probes.
-- If the grain has become so crusted that it cannot be removed according to the bin manufacturer's recommendations, contact a professional grain salvage service that has the experience and to remove out-of-condition grain. These services are costly. But they can save lives.
-- Do not cut the side walls of a bin without consulting the manufacturer. Cutting into a bin can damage the structural integrity of the bin or result in uneven unloading. That can cause the structure to fail and collapse.
Dan Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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