Good news for corn farmers: the Department of Agriculture is predicting a record-breaking corn crop this year.   Hopefully, this will be a good year for farmers who grow other types of grains.  OSHA continues to educate the agri-business community and workers about dangers in the grain handling industry, especially in the storage of grain.

“It could take less than 60 seconds for a worker to be completely inundated in a storage bin. More than half of all engulfments result in death by suffocation,” said Nick Walters, OSHA regional administrator for six Midwestern states. In July, a 55-year-old worker was fatally buried in a grain bin in Sidney, Ill., in addition to other incidents this year, bringing about investigations and stressing the urgency of OSHA’s grain bin safety initiative.  After 26 workers died in 2012, OSHA developed a local emphasis program across 25 states to address the recurring number of preventable injuries and deaths that occur each year.

On August 4, 2010 and again on February 1, 2011, OSHA issued warning letters to the grain handling industry, (approximately 13,000)  following a series of incidents, including the suffocation of 2 teenagers in an Illinois grain elevator.   OSHA warned the employers to not allow workers to enter grain storage facilities without proper equipment, precautions (such as turning off and locking/tagging out all equipment used so that the grain is not being emptied or moved into the bin), as well as safety training.  In response to the rising number of workers entrapped and killed in grain storage facilities, OSHA has also issued a new fact sheet, “Worker Entry Into Grain Storage Bins” in August 2010 for workers and employers, re-emphasizing the hazards of grain storage bin entry and the safe procedures that all employers must follow.

Suffocation is a leading cause of death in grain storage bins. According to a report issued by Purdue University in 2010, 51 workers were engulfed by grain stored in bins, and 26 died—the highest number on record.  Suffocation can occur when a worker becomes buried (engulfed) by grain as they walk on moving grain or attempt to clear grain built up on the inside of a bin. Moving grain acts like “quicksand” and can bury a worker in seconds. “Bridged” grain and vertical piles of stored grain can also collapse unexpectedly if a worker stands on or near it. The behavior and weight of the grain make it extremely difficult for a worker to get out of it without help.  Other major hazards in the industry include  falls, auger entanglement,  electrocution,  combustible dust explosions, fires, suffocation, entrapment, crushing injuries and amputations from equipment for handling grain.

When workers enter storage bins, employers must (among other things):

  1. Have a permit  issued for each time a worker enters a bin or silo, certifying that the precautions listed above have been put in place.
  2. Turn off / lock out all powered equipment associated with the bin, including augers used to help move the grain, so that the grain is not being emptied or moving out or into the bin. Moving grain out of a bin while a worker is in the bin causes a suction that can pull the worker into the grain in seconds.
  3. Forbid walking down grain and similar practices where an employee walks on grain to make it flow.
  4. Provide all employees a body harness with a lifeline, or a boatswains’ chair, and ensure that it is secured prior to the employee entering the bin.
  5. An observer must be stationed outside the bin or silo being entered by an employee. Ensure the observer is equipped to provide first aid, and that his/her only task is to continuously track the employee in the bin. Have at least two people at the bin to help in case problems come up.  Use a safety harness or safety line when entering the bin.
  6. Train all workers for the specific hazardous work operations they are to perform when entering and working inside of grain bins.
  7. Test the air within a bin or silo prior to entry for the presence of combustible and toxic gases, and to determine if there is sufficient oxygen. If detected by testing, vent hazardous atmospheres to ensure that combustible and toxic gas levels are reduced to non-hazardous levels, and that sufficient oxygen levels are maintained.
  8. Never allow children to play in an area where there is flowing grain.
  9. Warning decals should be placed at all bin entrances.
  10. Install a permanent life-line, hanging from the center of the bin for a person to grab on to.  Although a life-line is attached, it does not mean it is safe to enter the bin.

To prevent dust explosions and fires, employers must (among other things):

  1. A written housekeeping program with instructions to reduce dust accumulations on ledges, floors, equipment and other exposed surfaces should be developed and implemented.
  2. Identify “priority” housekeeping areas in grain elevators. The “priority” housekeeping areas include floor areas within 35 feet of inside bucket elevators, floors of enclosed areas containing grinding equipment and floors of enclosed areas containing grain dryers located inside the facility. Dust accumulations in these priority housekeeping areas shall not exceed 1/8th inch;  this amount of accumulation is more than enough to trigger fuel occurances.
  3. Minimize ignition sources through controlling hot work (electric or gas welding, cutting, brazing or similar flame producing operations).
  4. Inside bucket elevators can undergo primary explosions. OSHA’s grain handling standard requires that belts for these bucket elevators purchased after March 30, 1988 are conductive and have a surface electrical resistance not exceeding 300 megohms. Bucket elevators must have openings to the head pulley section and boot section to allow for inspection, maintenance, and cleaning.  These bucket elevators must be equipped with a motion detection device, which will stop the elevator when the belt speed is reduced by no more than 20% of the normal operating speed.
  5. A preventative maintenance program should include regularly scheduled inspections for mechanical and safety control equipment, which may include heat producing equipment such as motors, bearings, belts etc. Preventive maintenance is critical to controlling ignition sources. The use of vibration detection methods, heat sensitive tape or other heat detection methods can help in the implementation of the program.
  6. Install wiring and electrical equipment suitable for hazardous locations.
  7. Design and properly locate dust collection systems to minimize explosion hazards. All filter collectors installed after March 1988 shall be located outside the facility or located in an area inside the facility protected by an explosion suppression system or located in an area that is separated from other areas by construction having at least a one hour fire resistance rating and which is located next to an exterior wall vented to the outside.
  8. Install an effective means of removing ferrous material from grain streams so that such material does not enter equipment (grinders, pulverizers, and hammer mills.)
  9. Be prepared to make fast decisions about grain storage problems once they are detected.
  10. Safety first.  This should be first and foremost on the minds of all who are working near grain storage bins.  Exercise caution.

When traveling down life’s country roads, one can picture the peace and tranquility of farms, animals, silos, barns, that describe peacful country living.  The next time you see a silo or grain storage facility, think about the hazards that are possibly lurking within each day. The agriculture industry feeds our country, and we must insist that owners of these businesses keep their workers safe by following OSHA regulations.

Source: Department of Labor; OSHA; Harvest Land Cooperative