Farming is frequently ranked as one of the world’s most dangerous professions, and one of the leading causes of farm deaths and serious injury is grain bin accidents.

Kirsti Marohn, kmarohn@stcloudtimes.com        4:05 p.m. CDT October 12, 2014

 steve beck

Steve Beck drives his combine on the farm October 11th, 2014  (Photo: Jun-Kai Teoh, jteoh@stcloudtimes.com )

CLEAR LAKE, MN — Safety advocates are urging Minnesota farmers to be cautious around storage bins and elevators when working on this year’s big corn crop.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is predicting the state’s corn harvest could reach 1.34 billion bushels this year, which would be the second largest in history, just slightly behind 2012, said Adam Czech, spokesman with the Minnesota Corn Growers Association.

Farming is frequently ranked as one of the world’s most dangerous professions, and one of the leading causes of farm deaths and serious injury is grain bin accidents, according to the St. Cloud Times (http://on.sctimes.com/1sCYUJZ )

“We often see that when we have a bigger crop, there’s more work in getting the harvest done – sometimes later hours, longer days, more stress,” said Dan Martens, educator with the University of Minnesota Extension Service in Benton County. “And that can increase the risk of having accidents.”

Czech advises farmers to take their time when working on the harvest.

Inspectors from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found a main reason for farm accidents was employees walking on top of the grain in grain bins. Often, the employees who became engulfed in grain went inside a grain bin to try to dislodge or break up the grain.

Steve Beck, who farms in the Clear Lake Township, lost his father, Robert Beck, 11 years ago when he was working alone and apparently went into the grain bin because the corn had stopped flowing. Although it’s not clear exactly what happened, Beck suspects a hollow space had formed under the top crust, an effect known as bridging. Robert Beck fell in and suffocated.

“Every time you climb up on a grain bin, you have to stop and think about what you’re doing,” Steve Beck said.

Adding to the concern about storage are delays along the railroads used to transport grain. With an increase in trains carrying oil from the Bakken fields of North Dakota to refineries around the country, shipments have been slowed, which could mean more grain going into bins and elevators.

“The concern is that if these rail issues keep up, we’re going to have a backlog,” Czech said.


 

STEVE BECK’S STORY – The first sign of trouble was when Steve Beck’s son, Drew, showed up after school to help out at the family farm and found his grandfather was missing. Drew called his father, who asked is his grandfather’s pickup truck there? Yes. Was the grain bin running? Yes. It dawned on Steve right away that something was wrong. His son called 911 and rescue crews emptied the grain bin. Robert Beck’s body was found at the bottom.

His father was working alone when he apparently went into the grain bin because the corn had stopped flowing. Although it’s not clear exactly what happened, Beck suspects a hollow space had formed under the top crust, an effect known as bridging. It was like being on thin ice. The grain gave way. Robert fell in and suffocated. That was 11 years ago. These days, safety is always on Steve’s mind as he works on his family’s Clear Lake Township century farm. “Every time you climb up on a grain bin, you have to stop and think about what you’re doing,” Steve said.

Such accidents are not uncommon. Farming is frequently ranked as one of the world’s most dangerous professions, and one of the leading causes of farm deaths and serious injury is grain bin accidents. There’s more risk with a large harvest and delayed rail traffic this year, raising the likelihood of more grain in storage and a hectic pace that can make farmers less mindful of safety.

Even with a rescue device it’s a challenge to get help to a rural farm fast enough to help someone trapped in grain. There have been more than 900 grain-bin entrapments reported throughout the country since 1964, more than half of them resulted in a fatality. Many occurred when a farmer or worker was “walking the grain,” as Robert Beck apparently was doing. The practice is widely known as extremely risky, but farmers still do it. “When you’re having trouble, that’s when you do things you shouldn’t be doing,” Steve Beck said.

More grain, more storage

With a record corn harvest expected this year and prices at a low point for the last several years, more grain is going into storage bins and elevators. That raises concern among safety advocates.

Often when there is a bigger crop there’s more work in getting the harvest in…later hours, longer days, and more stress…all of which can increase the risk of having accidents. Nationwide, the harvest is expected to break records at more than 14 billion bushels. While many farmers are holding onto last year’s crop hoping that prices rise again, once they start harvesting this year’s crop, they’re going to have to move last year’s crop. Adding to the concern about storage are delays along the railroads used to transport grain. With an increase in trains carrying oil from the Bakken fields of North Dakota to refineries around the country, shipments have been slowed, which could mean more grain going into bins and elevators. The concern is that if these rail issues keep up, there’s going to be a backlog.

This year the crops varied much more from farm to farm and field to field which can lead to more spoiled grain in bins which tends to cause more crusting at the top of the grain. Unfortunately, this often leads to crawling into the bin with a long pole or walking around on it to break up the crust up to keep the grain moving thru the bin. That’s when you can get trapped in the grain.

Because of the need for storage, farmers also might be more likely to use older storage bins that aren’t designed for safety. The easy solution would be to tell farmers never to go into a grain bin. However, sometimes there are legitimate reasons to enter a bin. In those cases the grain-moving equipment or augers should be shut off before entering and you should stay off the crust unless you are secured with a safety harness attached to a lifeline anchored outside the bin. The power box that controls the equipment should be padlocked so no one accidentally turns it on while someone is in the bin, he said. You should also make sure someone else knows where you are, what you’re doing, and what to do if there is a problem.

Children should never be allowed to play around grain bins or on wagons or trucks, which are much larger than in the past. They unload much faster, and it’s much easier for children to fall into them and to get pulled into the grain and lost from view.

Safety problems

In Minnesota, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration began highlighting grain bin safety after several fatal accidents between 2003 and 2007.

Minnesota OSHA conducted 200 nonfatal inspections and eight fatality inspections in grain facilities from 2003 to 2013. Of the eight fatalities, three resulted in citations for entrapment hazards and four in citations for lack of employee training.

Inspectors found a main reason for the accidents was employees walking on top of the grain. Often, the employees who became engulfed in grain went inside a grain bin to try to dislodge or break up the grain.

“Our main thing is don’t go in there unless you can do it safely,” said James Honerman, Minnesota OSHA spokesman. “You’ve got to stop the flow of grain.”

Many grain bin accidents occur on family farms, which aren’t under OSHA jurisdiction, Honerman said.

Czech advises farmers to take their time when working on the harvest, which can go against their basic instinct.

“It’s harvest season. You’re in a rush,” he said. “You feel like you have this small window to get your crops in, because you have no idea what the weather’s going to be like the next couple of days. So you could tend to rush and feel panicked.

“And that’s when accidents happen.”

Saving lives

Rescuing someone trapped in a grain bin is tricky. They can quickly become buried and suffocate under the crushing pressure of the collapsing grain.

Some rural fire departments are getting new equipment to help with grain bin rescues. Edina-based Geronimo Energy, which is developing several wind farms in western Stearns County, recently donated a grain bin rescue device to the Sauk Centre Fire Department.

The device, called a Res-Q-Tube, has four shields that rescuers can slide around a partially buried victim to stop the flow of grain and reduce pressure. The grain inside the tube can be vacuumed or scooped out to free the victim.

For rural fire departments, the $2,000-$3,000 cost for the device can be a budget issue, said Justin Pickar, Geronimo spokesman.

The Sauk Centre Fire Department is planning to start training with the equipment, Fire Chief John Egan said.

“It’s a pretty useful tool if you need it,” he said.

However, it only works for a partially buried victim, Egan said. Time is always an issue with grain-bin accidents, he said.

On the Beck farm, Steve Beck is well versed in the safety precautions, and often talks about them with his sons.

“When you’re brought up on a farm, safety’s always on the back of your mind,” he said. It’s a dangerous profession, involving working with livestock, machinery and electricity, Beck said.

His father knew the safety measures, too.

“You can only make that mistake once,” Beck said. “That’s the trouble with this occupation.”

beck combine

Times reporter Kirsti Marohn interviews Steve Beck while Beck works in his field near  Clear Lake. Beck’s father died 11 years ago in a grain bin accident.   (Photo: Jun-Kai Teoh, jteoh@stcloudtimes.com )

 

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