Due to the late 2019 harvest, many farmers stored grain at higher-than-recommended moisture levels last fall. That increases the risk of entrapment if growers enter their bins to scout for grain-quality issues or fix plugged augers.
"Most corn is of questionable quality this year," said Gary Woodruff, a grain conditioning expert with GSI. Growers were urged to dry their corn down to 14% this year, but few actually accomplished that, he said.
"Grain went into the bins at a lower quality, higher moisture and with more fines this fall, which makes this year much more dangerous," he said. Fines may congregate in the center of the bin where they obstruct airflow. The centers don't cool and they can go bad, Woodruff said.
There is little growers can do to prevent quality problems this spring, other than keep the grain as cold as possible and check the grain every week.
"Check for smell and take moisture samples off the top," Woodruff said.
New technology monitoring equipment is in development. GSI's GrainViz will help farmers manage grain quality remotely. GrainViz creates a three-dimensional moisture map using technology similar to that of an MRI or CT scan. Operators can see the moisture content of each individual bushel of grain and its location within the grain mass, without having to enter the bin. GrainViz may be available by 2021.
This is a year for altering grain-handling practices. If a farmer is handling his grain this year as he has done in past years, he's making a mistake, Woodruff said. "I have a hard time not getting upset," he said. "Famers want to get into those bins and do something, and too many of them are going to die."
Grain related accidents occur three, four or five times per month.
Purdue University's Agricultural Safety and Health Program reported 30 grain entrapment cases in 2018 -- the most recent year for which it has reported numbers. The 30 cases represent a 30% increase in grain entrapments from 2017, when 23 entrapments were recorded.
The number of fatal cases (15) was the fifth largest recorded after 2010.
Between 1962 and 2018, Purdue has documented 2,050 cases that resulted in an injury, fatality or required emergency extrication by first responders. Of them all, 1,462 (71%) involved grain storage and handling facilities, of which 1,225 were reported as entrapment or engulfment in grain. Of all cases documented, 1,214 (59%) were fatal.
"[Grain] accidents happen so fast," said Catherine Rylatt, whose nephew, Alejandro Pacas, 19, died in the 2010 Mount Carroll, Illinois, grain accident. "But the rescues can take hours."
At Mount Carroll, it took nearly 300 rescuers six hours to free the sole survivor, Will Piper, 20, who was buried up to his neck, and hours more to recover the bodies of Pacas and 14-year-old Wyatt Whitebread.
Rylatt is co-founder and program director of the Grain Handling Safety Coalition in Springfield, Illinois, (grainsafety.org). The group has brought grain safety training to 4,900 people in 23 states. She too was concerned about the 2019-2020 harvest.
"This could be a bad time. Safety needs to be put at the top of the list," she said.
If you are trapped in grain, there is a 50-50 chance you come out alive, 50-50 chance you will die. It is a historic fact, as well, that one in five of all agricultural confined-space accidents -- a term including grain accidents -- involves young adults and children under 21. That was the case five times in 2018.
In 2018, Purdue tracked 61 confined-space accidents in all -- 13% more than in 2017. Of these cases, there were those 30 grain entrapment cases, but also 46 falls into or from grain storage structures, seven asphyxiations due to deficient oxygen levels or toxic environments and 11 equipment entanglements that occurred while working inside or around confined spaces.
In 2018, the states with the most documented confined-space cases of all types, including fatal and non-fatal, were Iowa (8), Illinois (5), Nebraska (5), Ohio (5) and Wisconsin (5). Overall, incidents were documented in 23 states in 2018.
Woodruff recommends that farmers regularly check the quality of their grain.
"Climb to the bin manhole and, without entering, look at the grain surface to see if there is crusting or any off-smells that may indicate a mold issue," he advises. "Most problems show up on the surface first. It's best if a sample from the surface is checked for moisture. Any increase in moisture indicates condition problems in the bin."
Farmers might also deploy CO2 monitors. The monitors are not common on farms. Handheld monitors are more common at commercial elevators.
"I would love to see CO2 monitors become more common," he said. "They watch grain much better than temperature; they tip you off to problems."
Woodruff counsels against entering a bin. Entering the bin and walking on the surface runs the risk of the crust breaking and the farmer tumbling into the grain, becoming quickly engulfed.
"That's why we always preach a policy of zero entry," he said. "But if farmers decide to do so anyway, there are precautions they should take."
Here are several:
-- Always lockout and tag out an unloading system before entering a bin.
-- Communicate. Know for sure if someone is in a bin. If someone is inside a bin, ensure someone is standing outside the bin.
-- Make sure someone outside the bin has cell service in case of an accident. That person should know how to call 911 and tell first responders exactly where you are among all the bins in a bin facility.
-- Always wear a harness and lifeline. It takes 30 second to put one on -- 30 seconds for life.
-- Consult local university websites for additional grain bin safety recommendations.
Dan Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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