Grain entrapment rescues

by Arvin Donley
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This is the second in a two-part series on grain engulfment. This article focuses on grain entrapment rescue. The first article, which appeared in the April issue, focused on entrapment risk factors and safety tips.

While the grain industry has made progress in safety awareness and prevention, recent statistics indicate that grain entrapments and deaths from entrapments at commercial storage facilities in the United States (U.S.) have risen in recent years.

According to data gathered by Matt Roberts at Purdue University, between 2000 and 2003, a total of 16 entrapments and 14 deaths from entrapments were reported in the U.S. at commercial facilities (non-farm). From 2004 through 2007, the number of entrapments and deaths from entrapments jumped to 45 and 26, respectively, with 19 entrapments and 9 deaths reported in 2007 alone.

At the request of its members, the Grain Elevator and Processing Society (GEAPS) on March 1 held a workshop on “Grain Bin Engulfment: Causes, Human Costs and Prevention” at the GEAPS Exchange.

The workshop included comments from three survivors of grain entrapment, which is the leading cause of job-related fatalities in the grain industry, as well as presentations from safety experts.


Wayne Bauer, safety director of Star of the West Milling Co., Frankenmuth, Michigan, U.S., who attended the workshop, said the single most important thing companies with grain storage facilities can do for their employees is offer grain entrapment safety and rescue training. He said the amount of this type of training offered in the grain industry is “grossly inadequate.”

“You can’t just show somebody a 15-minute video in the break room and say they’ve been trained,” Bauer said. “Unless they have done hands-on training on an annual basis, they are not trained. If they are not doing that, they are kidding themselves if they expect their employees to react quickly and efficiently should something happen.”

Bauer said the lack of safety and rescue training is only one of the factors working against today’s grain facility workers.

“There are a lot of issues there,” Bauer said. “With the growth of the ethanol industry, facilities are carrying corn longer. Companies are getting leaner and leaner with fewer employees on payroll, so people are taking shortcuts and jumping in the bin by themselves instead of working with somebody. Also, the size and conveyors are so much larger than they used to be. Today, a guy who gets in the bin trying to unplug something is dealing with a 10,000- or 20,000-bushel-per-hour conveyer in the basement or tunnel area as opposed to the 3,000- or 4,000-bushel-per-hour auger that was used 20 years ago.”


If confronted with a grain entrapment situation, it’s important to take immediate action.

“The first thing you want to do is make sure the unloading equipment is shut down and locked out,” Bauer said. “Next, you need to get people to the scene who have the equipment and knowledge to deal with the situation, then you try to stabilize the surface around the individual.”

Bauer said how to proceed with the rescue attempt will depend on variables such as where the entrapped employee is in relation to the entrance hole, the depth in which the person is buried and the width of the bin.

“If someone is buried from the waist up, you can’t just pull them out,” he said. “You might try to get some restraining material around him. A coffer dam is the best thing to use in that situation. You can also a half-dozen 18-to-20-inch strips of plywood, a garbage can with the bottom knocked out or just about anything you can get to him without burying him further. You can’t walk directly at him because it can cause the grain to avalanche and bury him deeper.”

Bauer said that if you can’t approach the trapped individual safely, then cutting a hole in the bin from the outside to drain the grain is another option.

If the victim is completely submerged, this should be done as soon as possible. Making a V-shaped cut, cut at least two holes on opposite sides (three to four holes symmetrically spaced are recommended, and even more for larger bins). Make a cut about 30 to 40 inches across between the bolt lines of a single sheet so that you don’t cut across vertical or horizontal bin sheet joints. Cut the holes just below the feet of a partially submerged victim or as low as possible if the victim is not visible.

Bauer said one thing that is overlooked when it comes to bin entry is the benefits of establishing an overhead anchorage point for the lifeline. He said Star of the West Milling has designed and installed a restraining system that includes this overhead anchorage point that is secured with an unconditional tie-off that allows the rescue crew to provide the person entering the bin with slack, as needed for movement, while preventing the person from slipping under the grain if an incident occurs. He said the restraining system is very inexpensive, especially when considering the millions of dollars that companies are spending on new facilities.

“If you do your own labor, you’re talking about only $200 in parts,” Bauer said.

Grain facilities should not take for granted that the local fire departments will be able to provide assistance in a grain entrapment emergency.

But most fire departments are not trained in grain entrapment or high-angle rescue, which is why grain companies should try to arrange a joint training session in which their employees and local emergency responders receive hands-on training.

“Most volunteer fire chiefs say they are interested in getting training in this area,” Bauer said. “But a fire department is not obligated to respond to a 911 call if they are not trained or equipped to respond. More and more fire chiefs are saying if they’re not trained to deal with that, then they don’t want the exposure.”


According to Purdue, the running average of grain entrapment deaths in the U.S. between 2004 and 2008 was 6.8 per year, including 10 in 2008. Between 2000 and 2003, the running aver- age was only 4 deaths per year. Bauer warns that unless more time and money is allocated to grain entrapment safety training, these already grim statistics will continue to worsen.

“This issue is not going to go away; we’ll be talking about it 10 years from now,” Bauer said. “I’m hoping we can get this thing turned around. It’s like the dust explosion issue that was so prevalent back in the 1960s and 70s … it took a period of time to re-engineer the facilities, but now it’s pretty rare that you hear about someone dying in a dust explosion. But we’re a long way from that in these grain engulfment situations. I just hope we can reduce the numbers and get people more serious about training.”

The GEAPS Bin Entry/Tech Rescue Advisory Committee has been working with GEAPS members, steel bin manufacturers, the Safety and Technical Rescue Association (SATRA) and academia to deal with the recent rash of grain engulfments.

Bauer said the Steel Bin Manufacturer’s Council has been examining new bin design ideas that could reduce the amount of “plugging” that takes place during load out and prompts workers to enter the bin to break up the plugged grain.

“The idea is to keep people out of the bins using a zero entry mentality,” he said. “Let’s make unloading systems that are more efficient.”

In 2009, training classes are being offered through SATRA at several facilities around the U.S. A series of one and-a-half day classes are scheduled for June 19-20 and June 29-30 at Star of the West Milling in Frankenmuth, Michigan, and Aug. 18 at The Andersons facility in Toledo, Ohio. A class will also be conducted June 1-5 at a CHS facility in Kennewick, Washington, U.S. Cost for each class is $175. For more information on the classes, contact Jenny Boeckman at 1.800.888.9596, ext. 213 or .