grain bin safety
“Man suffocates in grain entrapment incident.”

“Multiple injuries reported in grain dust explosion at mill.”

Although in recent years some progress has been made in the grain storage and processing industries regarding worker safety, tragic headlines like these still come across our newswire far too often.

The bottom line for operational employees in these industries is this: Working at a facility where grain is stored or processed is inherently dangerous, and management and rank-and-file employees must work together to make safety THE top priority to prevent these tragedies from occurring, or at least drastically reduce the number of them.

The good news is the emphasis on employee safety in the grain, flour milling and feed milling industries has never been greater. In recent years, almost every education program at the major industry events I’ve attended has had presentations designed to make work environments in the grain storage and processing industries safer. Without question, companies are emphasizing employee safety like never before.

The bad news, however, is that these incidents continue to occur at an unacceptable frequency despite the industry’s best efforts to educate their workers on how to avoid these life-threatening situations.

In the United States, for instance, there were seven reported grain dust explosions at food and agricultural facilities in 2017, two more than in 2016 but below the 10-year average of 9.3 explosions per year, according to an annual report issued by Purdue University. Five people were killed and 12 were injured in 2017, with all of the deaths and all but one of the injuries occurring at an explosion at Didion Milling’s corn processing facility in Wisconsin.

That’s not to say progress hasn’t been made.

grain dust explosion
Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock.
The number of grain dust explosions, injuries and deaths in the United States have gradually fallen over the last 40 years, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. From 1976-85, the annual average was 21.7 explosions, 44.1 injuries and 14.3 deaths. Those numbers fell to 13.8, 10.5 and 1.8 from 1986-95, 10.6, 12.6 and 1.6 from 1996-2005 and 9.7, 9.4 and 0.8 from 2006-14. That’s a 55% decline in explosions, a 79% decline in injuries and 95% decline in fatalities over that 40-year period.

Since the recent high of 59 grain entrapment cases linked to 31 deaths in 2010, the five-year average (2011-15) of incidents was 30.2 with 29 entrapment cases reported in 2016, according to the Purdue report.

While most of these numbers reflect improvement, it still falls short of the goal. One of the best presentations I have heard on the subject of employee safety came from Ardent Mills CEO Dan Dye who stated to an audience of flour millers at the 2017 IAOM Conference that zero injuries/fatalities are the company’s goal and that the company views safety as a value, not just a priority.

You might question whether zero incidents is a realistic goal, but certainly the vast majority of incidents are preventable. So many grain entrapment stories start with grain that isn’t properly managed, causing it to clump together, which prevents it from flowing out the silo. Someone tries to break up the crusted grain and, in a matter of seconds, is enveloped and dies. As for grain dust explosions, the culprit is almost always too much dust accumulation due to insufficient cleaning and/or not having heat sensors on equipment that issue a warning when a bearing or some other potential ignition source is overheating.

As someone who lost their father in an industrial accident when I was 3, I know the impact these incidents have not only on the victim’s co-workers but the family members they leave behind. And I always wonder did everyone — from the victim to the top managers in the company they worked for — do everything they could to prevent it.