Safety procedures need to be in place to prevent grain entrapment on farm
MITCHELL, S.D. -- Among the inherent dangers of farming, working in or around grain bins and gravity boxes remains near the top of the list. In a matter of seconds, a farmer can become trapped in grain, unable to move and breathe. Suffocation usually follows.
That was the case in Elkton, S.D., earlier this spring. Roy Clark, 77, of Elkton, climbed into a grain bin and, according to Brookings County Assistant Sheriff Scott Sebring, was buried in corn.
"Emergency workers punched holes in the side of the grain bin to let the corn out and went down in the bin through the top," Sebring said, but it was too late. Clark died in the grain bin due to suffocation.
This past Wednesday in Zachow, Wis., an employee at Sorenson Grain fell into a grain bin and was found four hours later when he was pronounced dead. Firefighters gained access to the bin by cutting holes in the side.
Incidents such as these were researched by Bill Field and Matt Roberts of Purdue University in West Layfatette, Ind., for a report issued in March. Since 1964, the report said, there have been 800 recorded cases of entrapment in the United States and Canada. Of those, 12 were in South Dakota, compared to 119 in Indiana, 99 in Iowa, 63 in Nebraska, 59 in Minnesota and 14 in North Dakota.
Field said the numbers are partly a reflection of each state's data collection efforts. He also said it is interesting to note the two states with the most recorded entrapments are also the first and second states, respectively, in the Midwest in terms of on-farm grain storage capacity.
Another factor is that the domestic corn demand for ethanol has resulted in the largest buildup of storage capacity across the Midwest in history, according to Field.
"This will result in more corn being stored for longer periods of time than in past years and possibly an increased potential for grain entrapments unless there is a change in current work practices," Field wrote.
According to the research, the leading cause of entrapment was spoiled grain.
During a record crop year, such as 2009, when grain is harvested in less than ideal conditions, it can result in more reports of out-of-condition or spoiled grain in storage and increased probability of a plugged flow when unloading bins. It is then, when a farmer enters the bin to unclog the flow of grain, that entrapment can occur.
"The record 2009 crop should be a reason to celebrate and not the cause for tragedy and sorrow," Field wrote.
Mitchell, S.D., Assistant Fire Chief Paul Morris recalls responding to an entrapment call near Mount Vernon, S.D., where the victim suffocated. Morris noted that brain injury starts after three minutes without breathing. That fact, combined with the speed of an entrapment, is often a deadly combination. Morris said the fire department has entrapment training planned for this fall.
Another way that entrapment can occur is when there is a bridge -- a hollow space under the surface of a pile of corn -- creating a false-floor effect. If the corn is then stepped on, the bridge can give out and, like quicksand, a person can become trapped in a matter of 10 to 15 seconds.
Farmer's Alliance general manager Jim Morken, of Mitchell, recently attended grain entrapment training in Gettysburg, S.D., and was surprised at how quickly entrapment can occur. During the training, attendees were lowered into grain in a controlled environment using a harness system.
"It surprised me. Once the grain gets over your knees, you really are not able to free yourself -- you're trapped," Morken said. "I thought it had to be a lot higher."
Morken and other experts say that many accidents could be prevented if certain procedures are put into practice. Since many of the entrapment cases happen on the family farm, Morken said people should never enter a grain bin alone and never enter a grain bin when the auger, or grain removal system, is running.
"The key is awareness," Morken said. "Just don't get yourself into a situation where you can become trapped."
Grain does not need to be over the head to get people into trouble, experts remind. When grain is up to the chest, it can be just as dangerous, according to Tom Slattery, of Sioux Falls, S.D., the manager of occupational safety and health for the South Dakota Safety Council.
"If you are engulfed anywhere from the waist up, once you exhale and deflate your lungs, that grain fills in (where your lungs were) and then you can asphyxiate," he said.
Slattery said it would be ideal to tell farmers to never go in their bins, but that's ignoring the reality that the practice does happen. He advises farmers to have someone there with them who they can call for help, possibly using a rope.
Laura Wehde is a reporter at The Daily Republic in Mitchell, S.D., which is owned by Forum Communications Co.