NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA, U.S. – Grain entrapment prevention and rescue is a hot topic at this year’s GEAPS Exchange in New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.

The annual gathering of the Grain Elevator and Processing Society’s members, most of whom work in commercial grain elevators, opened on March 10 with a workshop entitled “Why Are They Still Entering Grain Bins?” Also, throughout the three-day event, grain entrapment rescue demonstrations are being conducted to show proper techniques for rescuing grain entrapment victims.

The reason for the emphasis on this topic is simple: each year dozens of farmers and employees at grain storage facilities around the world die when they are engulfed by grain inside bins. Sadly, these deaths are preventable.

“We lose about 30 people per year (in the United States) and twice that number are involved in non-death entrapments,” said Carol Jones, an Oklahoma State University professor who specializes in grain condition and safety. Jones was one of the opening workshop’s featured speakers.

Jones said the first line of defense in preventing these incidents is keeping the stored grain in proper condition. Most grain entrapment deaths and injuries occur because employees enter the bin to break up clotted or crusted grain that prevents grain from flowing out of the bin.

“Zero entry sounds good, but the answer to why are they still entering grain bins is we either have to have equipment deal with crusted or clumped grain or we have to have someone go in the bin and deal with it,” Jones said.

She said aeration is the biggest factor in keeping grain in good condition.  But doing this requires an investment in aeration equipment and grain monitoring equipment such as  temperature cables, air quality monitors and grain probes and samplers. She also recommended marketing poor quality grain quickly.

“Get it out of the bin before something bad happens,” she said.

How the grain is loaded into the bin can also have an impact on the condition of the grain, which in turn reduces the need for bin entry, she said.

“If you level the top off, the aeration system is going to work better,” Jones said.

Jeff Decker, president, Decker Consulting & Investigations, provided an update on the latest equipment and procedures that can prevent grain entrapment and help employees execute rescues.

Decker, who nearly died in a farm accident as a teenager, said lock-out, tag-out procedures that ensure that machinery is properly shut off before employees enter a bin, and not able to start up again until they exit, must always be used.

He said the number one cause of grain entrapment was rodding or poking clumped or crusted grain while an unloading conveyor is running.

“If you do that you are at risk of going with the flow of the grain and it won’t be long before your head is under the grain,” he said. “With the increased unload capacities, that doesn’t take long to happen.”

Decker said it takes only 10 seconds for a person’s entire body to submerge in grain based on a 10-inch auger unloading at a rate of 4,086 bushels per hour.

Another common cause of engulfment is trying to break up columns or towers of crusted grain while standing on the bin floor. Amazingly, most “grain avalanche” deaths involve less than 3 feet of grain, said Decker, noting that being buried in just 1 foot of grain is the equivalent of 800 pounds of pressure. 

“This is an increasing reason for engulfment,” Decker said. “Whether it’s in the middle of the bin or up against the wall, it is very dangerous to try to break up that grain while standing in a bin.”

Decker highly recommended the use of bin coring equipment, zero-entry bin sweeps, compressed air and grain vacuums as ways to deal with out of condition grain without bin entry.

If prevention fails, Decker said it’s important that rescue equipment is always stored on grain elevator property and that employees are properly trained to execute a grain engulfment rescue, along with local emergency responders.

He said about 30% of the grain entrapment incidents in the U.S. occur at commercial facilities while 70% occur on farms. A few years ago, the ratio was 50-50, so it appears that commercial grain storage facilities are making some progress in preventing these incidents.

“The problem is we’re still seeing about the same number of incidents overall,” he said.