The risks associated with grain entrapment have gained increased visibility in recent years, driven by high-profile silo tragedies and the efforts of survivors, trade groups, and the fire and rescue community to raise awareness about this important topic. The conversation is sure to continue as the feature film Silo – a dramatic grain bin rescue story with an educational mission – hit streaming platforms earlier this month.

A recently-released report published by Purdue University’s Agricultural Safety and Health Program confirms the timeliness of these efforts, as it underscores how grain entrapment remains a significant issue in the agricultural industry. The 2020 Summary of U.S. Agricultural Confined Space-Related Injuries and Fatalities documents 64 accidents involving agricultural confined spaces last year, including 35 grain entrapments, seven falls into or from grain storage structures, four asphyxiations and 12 equipment entanglements.

A Wake-Up Call for Grain Handling Professionals

Additional statistics from the Purdue report show just how serious confined space accidents can be for those storing and handling bulk agricultural commodities:

  • Illinois reported the most confined space accidents in 2020 (17), more than double the next two highest reporting states, Minnesota and North Dakota
  • 3 incidents involved more than one victim
  • 6 incidents involved workers under the age of 21
  • 8 grain dust explosions were documented, resulting in 9 injuries
  • 50% of all reported 2020 incidents were fatal

It’s important to note that many accidents occur on small family farms that are not regulated by OSHA, so these numbers may be incomplete as it’s believed many incidents go unreported. It’s also notable that in 2020 the number of reported agricultural confined space-related fatalities exceeded the number of fatalities in the mining industry, which historically has not been the case. This highlights the dangerous nature of grain handling and storage activities, and the importance of implementing safer equipment and processes to minimize risk.

How Does Grain Entrapment Continue to Happen?

Grain entrapment occurs when a worker falls or sinks into – or is piled onto by – grain or other agricultural products, typically in a bin, silo, grain transportation vehicle, or other storage container. Workers in the bottom of a bin have been engulfed by falls of hung-up material from above or collapsing piles. However, most grain engulfment incidents involve individuals entering the top of a full grain bin to perform a task, such as breaking up the surface crust that can form in poor storage conditions. If a void exists below the hardened crust, an individual can break through and become buried in grain. Falling through bridged material is not the only way someone can drown in a silo, however. Some silos make use of vertical auger to slowly circulate grain from the bottom of the bin to the top, which can create a quicksand-like effect if someone becomes caught in the flowing material.

Individuals often underestimate the degree to which kernels or seeds can lodge around a person’s feet or legs, locking more and more tightly together with every movement. In safety demonstrations, many people are shocked at how quickly they can find a single buried limb impossible to dislodge. Additional hazards that can exist inside silos include powerful moving equipment, electrical conductors, dust, and invisible toxic atmospheres, all of which can compound the risk of injury or entrapment. Without an immediate response from a trained silo rescue team, these situations are nearly always fatal.

Where Do Silo Accidents Occur?

There are many different types of facilities that receive, store, process, ship, or otherwise handle dry bulk products. The agricultural sector is where you’ll find commodities like corn, soybeans, wheat, oats, barley, or seeds being transported and stored as producers adjust their operations to accommodate growing seasons and market prices. Facilities that store agricultural materials in bins and silos until they’re ready to be sold or processed include:

  • Farming operations
  • Grain elevators
  • Feed mills and integrators
  • Food and pet food processors
  • Pelletizing plants
  • Soybean flaking facilities
  • Dry grinding operations
  • Flour or rice mills

With so much focus on this issue, it’s disheartening to see new entrapment and other silo accidents reported in the headlines every month this year. Silo safety remains a significant issue for farmers and grain processors. While most commercial operators have strict confined space entry policies in place to prevent accidental engulfment, accidents and policy violations still occur. However, the majority of accidents occur at small farming operations that are exempt from OSHA standards and less likely to have strict policies to limit unsafe behaviors.

Grain Silo Accident Prevention

Grain Bin Rescue vs. Prevention

Recently, there has been a strong focus on grain bin rescue tools and training. Indeed, having trained silo rescue teams equipped with grain entrapment rescue tubes, augers, fall protection, and other specialized equipment has been critical to a number of successful silo rescues in recent years. Many efforts have been made to promote awareness of the hazards that lurk inside silos and the use of proper fall protection, lock out / tag out, and other practices that can make working inside silos safer.

However, many safety professionals emphasize that the best way to avoid silo accidents, injuries, and fatalities within the bulk commodities industry is by preventing silo entry altogether. Many large storage or processing facilities eliminate issues that would require bin entry by regularly cleaning their silos and storage vessels using specialized silo cleaning equipment that can be safely operated from the bin deck.

OSHA Grain Handling Recommendations

In industrial settings, there are regulations that govern confined space entry, and require those entering confined spaces to be trained, authorized, and equipped to safely do so. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) outlines several tips for protecting worker safety when storing grain. These include:

  1. Ensure you obtain permits for each instance of confined space entry
  2. Turn off and remove all power equipment associated with moving grain in the bin
  3. Test the air for combustibles and toxic gases before entry
  4. Determine that there’s sufficient oxygen in the container
  5. Vent any hazardous atmospheres before entry
  6. Prohibit practices of walking down grain piles
  7. Provide body harnesses or lifelines
  8. Employ an observer stationed outside the bin or silo
  9. Maintain up-to-date training on hazardous work operations

While these suggestions may help prevent accidents when working inside a bin or silo, many commercial operators choose to invest in equipment that eliminates the need for confined space entry altogether. Pneumat Systems manufactures portable state-of-the-art equipment that can be lowered into silos from the outside to dislodge bridges and buildup and keep material flowing.

Pneumat also offers professional bin and silo cleaning services through their TeamPneumat cleaning crew, made up of experienced silo cleaning technicians who use the BinWhip, BinDrill, Cardox CO2 blasting system, and other equipment to safely clear dead non-flowing product and restore silos to full capacity. These solutions are generally designed for storage vessels that have a flat, stable area from which to operate the equipment, like large cement tower silos. However, smaller stave silos or corrugated steel bins with domed or conical roofs may not accommodate this type of system. A quick chat with a silo cleaning expert can help you determine the best solution for your particular application.

Silo Safety Solutions

For over 40 years, Pneumat Systems has been engineering equipment that keeps product flowing freely through bins, bunkers, and silos, eliminating the need for confined space entry.

Dual Impact BinWhip

Hydraulically-driven whipsets are used to cut away hardened bulk materials on the sidewalls of storage bins, bunkers, and silos. The different whipset choices include non-sparking options to prevent dust explosions. Pneumat invented the hydraulically-driven BinWhip decades ago, and has continued to improve and refine the system to maximize its effectiveness and longevity.

The latest model employs two whipsets rotating in opposite directions to create powerful shearing impacts while the counter-rotational forces stabilize the unit for better control. An operator steers the whiphead around inside the bin, dislodging hung-up material in a controlled and efficient manner.

BinDrill

Most often used in conjunction with the BinWhip, the BinDrill operates like a miniature oil derrick, allowing the operator to add interlocking drill shafts to drill through tough product to virtually any depth. This system is used to create an opening through bridged material so that the BinWhip can enter, or to create or maintain a flow channel down to the discharge gate.

Cardox CO₂ Blasting System

A non-detonating gas expansion system produces a controlled release of liquid carbon dioxide at up to 34,000 psi. Cardox tubes are used extensively in the mining and cement industry to break up concrete, coal, and other rock-hard materials. Agricultural products can also cake and harden to a surprising degree, especially fine products like wheat midds or dried distiller’s grains (DDGs).

This can result from moisture, mold, or insect activity, and as the product spoils it may even smolder or ignite. In these situations, the Cardox system can be used to blast free tough burnt residues that would otherwise be extremely difficult to remove.

Proven Effective Silo Safety Technology

These systems were developed to enhance the safety of those who transport, store, and process dry bulk materials by eliminating the need for hazardous confined space entry when cleaning bins, silos, and storage vessels of all types. Over the years they’ve been proven effective on:

  • Rice
  • Flaxseed flour
  • Soybean meal
  • Sunflower meal
  • Rape seed meal
  • Soya meal
  • Sugar
  • Salt
  • Chocolate
  • Bone meal
  • Fish meal
  • Feed & feed ingredients
  • Fertilizer
  • Wood chips or wood pulp
  • Sawdust
  • Paper pulp
  • Soda ash
  • Sand, rocks, & gravel
  • Coarse ore concentrate
  • Hydrated lime
  • Gypsum
  • Clay
  • Coal
  • Clinker
  • Slag
  • Fly ash
  • Catalysts
  • Coke
  • Chrome
  • Minerals
  • Finished cement
  • Iron oxide
  • Dust & fines
  • Refuse
  • Glass
  • Plastic

Preventing Grain Entrapment with Help From the Experts

It can take less than 4 seconds for someone to become helplessly trapped in flowing grain. It can’t be overstated how powerful the suction effect of stored grain can be. Studies show that the amount of force required to pull someone from waist-deep grain is enough to permanently damage their spinal column, so by the time someone realizes they are in trouble it is often already too late for them to be helped. Grain entrapment is almost always fatal and a truly terrifying and painful way to die.

The most effective safety measures avoid this tragic outcome by educating farmworkers and employees about the risks they face and investing in equipment that prevents the need for confined space entry when performing tasks like cleaning out bins and silos. Reach out and connect with a Pneumat expert to learn more about effective tools and techniques for preventing grain entrapment.