The sight of growing corn and grain bins are common if you go driving in the countryside of Iowa. What you might not know is that those grain bins are dangerous places to work. Workers have to take plenty of precautions before using them. Why are they so dangerous?
Flowing grain traps around 30-40 people a year, but it’s likely that the number of accidents is underreported. It is estimated that about half of those entrapments are fatal. Entrapment most often happens when the grain is emptied. It’s much like being in an avalanche. Once the snow settles it compacts hard around whatever is trapped.
Once you are trapped up to your knees, it can take hours to pull the grain away far enough so you can escape and can cause permanent damage in your legs from the pressure. Finally, if you get pulled under, suffocation and death quickly follow.
Farmers most often get trapped by flowing grain when they have to clear blockages inside the grain bin. Wet grain can stick to other grains and start to rot. This can cause caking in different locations inside the bin. If it cakes on the sides, one pull of grain from the bottom and that structure can suddenly collapse and bury a farmer. This is the first major danger of grain bins.
Another danger is a grain bridge. This is when caked grain clumps across a grain bin. As the grain drains, it can create a hollow underneath the caked part. These can often be big enough to stand on, but if they break then the collapse can trap a person.
The third major danger is being in the bin while the grain is flowing out for transportation. There are safe ways to enter the top of a grain bin for inspection, but if the machinery is turned on then it can make the grain flow and pull the worker under. A farm that doesn’t follow proper lockout procedures, safety harnesses, or safety procedures can have this happen.
OSHA requires that large farms have all of this gear in place, but most of the injuries come from small farms. If a farm is below a certain size, OSHA has no jurisdiction. This can let bad workplace problems creep in. There was a case in 2011 where two young boys working in a grain bin got sucked in and died. Due to the worker’s compensation laws, the family was only able to get a small amount of money for their loss, just enough for funeral expenses. This lead to an awareness campaign to prevent the problem in the future.
If you’re a farm worker, you need to know the dangers of grain bins. Refuse if you’re asked to clear out a dangerous blockage without the proper protective gear. Report farms that don’t follow safety procedures. You could be saving your life or the life of someone in your community.