A Purdue University report revealed that 2010 was the deadliest year in decades for grain bin fatalities. According to a Bloomberg story by Michael J. Crumb, the report indicated there were "51 grain bin accidents last year, up from 38 in 2009 and the most since tracking began in 1978. Twenty-five people died, and five of them were children under age 16. The previous record for grain bin accidents was 42 in 1993."
The bulk of these fatalities occurred in major corn and soybean growing states: "Illinois led the country with 10 accidents last year, followed by Minnesota with eight. Wisconsin had seven, and five were reported in Iowa." The reasons for the spike were attributed to an increase in corn production due to ethanol demands and an unusually wet season. Moisture in storage facilities can cause spoilage and rot, resulting in caked grain which gets clogged and the grain does not flow freely out of the bin so workers enter the bins to dislodge clogs. Of course, the primary reason for the spike in fatalities was the failure to adhere to safe handling practices. As with many industries, unsafe practices are often defended as being "the way it's always been done."
The US Department of Labor and OSHA recently cited 2 Illinois grain elevator operators and imposed nearly $1.4 million in fines for 3 fatalities in incidents where workers suffocated after being engulfed in grain. The citations were issued to Haasbach LLC in Mount Carroll and Hillsdale Elevator Co. in Geneseo and Annawan, Ill., for willful safety violations and to Haasbach for child labor violations. The OSHA link enumerates the nature of the violations in some detail.
Last summer we posted about two of these fatal accidents:
After 2 teen deaths, OSHA puts grain handling facilities on notice
Two farmworking teens killed in silo; media is mystified
OSHA issues letters, guidance to grain bin operators
In response to these incidents, OSHA issued letters to 3,000 grain bin operators. More recently, they issued a second batch of letters, this time to 10,000 grain bin operators across the U.S.
OSHA's grain handling facilities standard includes a requirement that employers provide workers entering bins or tanks with appropriate personal protective equipment such as full body harnesses for easier removal in the event of an emergency. Providing proper protection and not allowing workers to walk or stand in products piled higher than the waist reduces the risk of workers sinking and suffocating.
OSHA also outlined the following guidance:
When workers enter storage bins, employers must (among other things):
1. Turn off and 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. Standing on moving grain is deadly; the grain acts like 'quicksand' and can bury a worker in seconds. Moving grain out of a bin while a worker is in the bin creates a suction that can pull the workers into the grain in seconds.
2. Prohibit walking down grain and similar practices where an employee walks on grain to make it flow.
3. 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.
4. Provide an observer stationed outside the bin or silo being entered by an employee. Ensure the observer is equipped to provide assistance and that their only task is to continuously track the employee in the bin
5. Prohibit workers from entry into bins or silos underneath a bridging condition, or where a build-up of grain products on the sides could fall and bury them.
6. 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.
7. Ensure a permit is issued for each instance a worker enters a bin or silo, certifying that the precautions listed above have been implemented.
OSHA's Grain Handling Facilities Standard
Worker Entry into Grain Storage Bins
OSHA Agricultural Operations
Grain Handling / Harvesting Storage
Hazards Associated with Grain Storage and Handling
Confined Space hazards a threat to farmers
Dangerous Gases and Fires Can Make Silos Death Traps