Work Smart, Stay Alive

Learn how to avoid disabling or life-taking grain bin accidents.

Jim Patrico
By  Jim Patrico , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
John Lee is a safety consultant whose career has centered on preventing accidents, especially in grain bin sites. A mannequin helps with training in one of Asmark’s on-site grain bins filled with plastic grain, Image by Jim Patrico

John Lee is pretty straightforward about the mission of his grain bin safety workshop: “We are trying to make people stop and think so they don’t do something stupid, which could cause death.”

“Something stupid” is any careless activity in a dangerous place, such as work in and around grain bins. The people he is trying to influence are attendees at the safety workshops he teaches at the Asmark Institute, in Bloomington, Illinois. In his full-time position as director of safety, health and environmental services for the Grain and Feed Association of Illinois (GFAI), Lee has firsthand knowledge of accidents that cost workers their limbs, or even their lives.

Lee tells workshop attendees about a finger lost to a conveyor chain, a leg taken by an auger, a life lost in a fall from a grain bin ladder.

He gives them statistics. In 2016, Purdue University counted 60 grain-facility accidents nationwide. Thirty accidents produced fatalities. The grim list includes entrapments, falls, electrocutions, asphyxiations, entanglements and grain-dust explosions.

If something stupid happens at a grain bin site, it likely will have dire consequences, Lee says.

That’s one reason GFAI partnered with the Asmark Institute in 2013 to hold workshops at its Bloomington facility. Asmark is a provider of risk-management services and products to the agricultural industry. Farmers attend the workshops, as well.

“Of the more than a dozen Signature Training Courses we have built, the grain [bin] courses are routinely cited as proactively saving lives,” says Allen Summers, president of the Asmark Institute. “We don’t believe you can be any more successful than that.”

MOST DANGEROUS. Entrapments in grain bins get top billing at the workshops, because so many farmers and grain-company workers die in them. There were 29 entrapments in 2016 in the U.S., 11 of them fatal, according to Purdue.

In Lee’s two-day workshops, students learn how to prepare for grain bin entrapment by wearing safety harnesses and working in teams. They learn the physics of grain storage and how to approach someone engulfed in grain. In the event the worst happens, they learn the basics of how to use several types of rescue tubes.

But, avoiding accidents--not dealing with them once they happen--is the focus. Lee teaches how to minimize the dangers and how to spot those that already exist. “Entrapment safety starts with grain-quality management, because entrapment rarely happens in good-quality grain,” he says.

Stored grain should be clean of materials like stalks, pods and chaff. It also must go into the bins with proper moisture content. The inside of a bin is a microclimate. Too much moisture can actually create condensation--even rain--inside a bin, which can lead to the growth of microorganism and crusting. That can create dangerous bridges and air pockets in the grain.

“The No. 1 reason for getting entrapped is that a sump at the bottom of the bin gets plugged [usually with non-grain matter], and someone goes in there with a rod to break it up,” Lee says.

The man with the rod sometimes steps on a bridge of crusted grain and falls into the air pocket below. Grain immediately flows into the void and covers him.

OTHER DANGERS. Careless operators often leave unloading augers running when they enter the bin. As soon as the rod unplugs the sump, grain suddenly starts to flow again, and, “They are along for the ride,” Lee says.

To avoid that ride, be sure the electrical unload equipment is off and can’t be turned on while someone is in the bin. To ensure the equipment stays off, Lee suggests a simple electrical lockout system. Numbered padlocks reside on a display board near the electric service box. When someone goes into a bin, he padlocks the breaker switch to that bin in the off position and takes the key with him. That way, no one can accidentally throw the breaker to the on position. The numbers on the board indicate which bin is occupied.

EXPLOSIONS. Grain-dust explosions are spectacular killers. In 2011, six workers at a commercial grain elevator in Atchison, Kansas, died when a series of explosions ripped apart the facility. Lee explains that three things are necessary for such an explosion: grain dust, oxygen and an ignition point. He teaches how to spot and eliminate ignition points, which include metal-to-metal rubbing, heat from sources like welders and--most frequently--bearings going bad and causing heat or sparks.

ENTANGLEMENTS. Farmers well know the dangers of power takeoff shafts snagging clothing and pulling someone to disaster. An unseen danger is the carry chain in drag conveyors around grain legs. The horizontal conveyor shells that encase the chain can rust from the inside, creating weak spots that look normal from the outside. A foot carelessly placed on the weakened metal can fall into a running chain and be ripped apart.

Inside a bin, removable grates are key to safety around sumps. “I have seen five people in my career step into the sump hole in the center of a bin, and four of them came up with bloody nubs,” Lee says. He suggests always placing a grate over the sump when entering a bin. Removing the grate on your way out discourages plugs in the bin sump caused by foreign material.

Those same bins likely use sweep augers. Lee recommends attaching a 7-foot-long receiver hitch to a sweep auger to give an operator a margin of safety when moving it. The hitch should have a “dead man” switch to shut off the auger if he lets go.

Direct drive sweep augers in farm bins “can literally chase you around the bin,” Lee says. He suggests a bin stop device that prevents the sweep making a full circle.

SLIPS, TRIPS, FALLS. In a single two-month period this spring, two Illinois men died at grain-handling sites as a result of falls from ladders. Lee says one of them was carrying a grease gun that got tangled in the ladder.

Lee’s advice when climbing ladders is to maintain three points of contact (hands and feet) with the structure. When positioning a portable ladder, make sure the angle is at a 4-to-1 ratio. That is, for every 4 feet the ladder goes up, it should be 1 foot farther from the wall.

Many in Lee’s classes are young men and women just starting to work at grain elevators. But, older, experienced workers are not exempt from danger.

For one thing, Lee says, they are not as quick or strong as they used to be. Chances they took when younger and survived might kill them today. Circumstances have changed, too. “In the old days, conveyors moved more slowly, and you could do dumb things and get away with it,” Lee says. Now, with much faster unload speeds, the margin of error is less.

Experienced or unskilled, Lee says those who survive grain-site accidents have one thing in common: “They feel shame because they did something stupid and caused worry and inconvenience for their family, friends and rescue workers.”

One-day courses at Asmark cost $140; two-day courses are $265. Courses and schedules are available at

A Survivor’s Tale:

John Lee tells his students the story of Arick Baker, who, in 2014, became trapped in a grain bin full of corn on his family’s farm, near Iowa Falls, Iowa. The 23-year-old went into a bin by himself to clear a plugged sump. A bridge of crusted corn collapsed beneath him, and he was buried alive.

Fortunately, he was wearing a helmet with a visor and battery-operated air filter that allowed him to breathe. When would-be rescuers arrived, they could only guess if he was buried in the bin. Still conscious, Baker heard a rescuer say, “If that kid is in here, he must be dead, because I don’t hear him, and I don’t see him.”

Baker started screaming, the rescuers heard him, and four hours later, he was pulled from what he thought was going to be his grave.

Hear Baker tell his story at

Angle of Repose:

One wall in the Asmark complex has a visual demonstration of the proper “angle of repose” of grain in a bin. John Lee explains that well-conditioned corn augered into a bin will form a 21- to 23-degree angle. The correct angle for soybeans is 25 degrees; for wheat, it is 28 degrees.

If the angle is more or less than correct, it’s an indicator that something is amiss.

The grain could be wet or crusty, or it could have a lot of foreign matter in it. In any case, it’s an accident in the making because it makes the mass of grain unstable.

“You don’t want to stand next to it or in it, because the whole thing could slide right down on you. An avalanche,” Lee says, which can lead to entrapment and eventual suffocation.


Jim Patrico