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Grain Bin Accidents Still a Major Problem, Says Safety Specialist

by Darrell Boone

Published: Friday, September 28, 2012

Bill Field had some good news and bad news for those attending last Tuesday's Ag Health and Safety Forum at Purdue University. The good news—the number of farm accidents is decreasing. The bad news—grain bin accidents are not.

"Flowing grain is a very powerful force," said Field, Purdue extension safety specialist. "I know of farmers who thought they'd be safe by tying themselves off to a ladder inside the bin only to have the rope pull the ladder off the wall."

Field's comments were delivered to a sizeable audience including several FFA chapters at the Beck Ag Center at Purdue. The forum, which featured a number of practical, hands-on demonstrations, sought to educate farmers and FFA members about accident prevention. It was held in conjunction with National Farm Safety Week.

Field said that although there are fewer farmers today, grain bin entrapments are nevertheless increasing because of factors like: more on-farm storage; farmers hanging onto grain longer, which can lead to crusting; and bigger bins, which unload much faster, creating a stronger flow.

"The typical human body is about two bushels in size," he said. "Today we have bins that can unload from 1,200 to 2,000 bushels per hour, and it only takes a few seconds for a human body to be pulled into moving grain flow and become completely engulfed."

Field said the second most common type of entrapment occurs when grain goes out of condition and crusts together or gets hung up. He said it's not uncommon for thousands of pounds of corn to get stuck to the side of the bin wall, and farmers can be injured by either the huge falling chunks or be entrapped by them.

According to Field, statistics show that the two groups of farm workers most likely to be injured or killed in grain bins are 13- to 17-year-olds, and farmers over 55.

"In the younger group, there tends to be an attitude of 'I'm invincible,'" he said. "And with the older group, it's more of an attitude of complacency—'I've been in grain bins all my life, it can't happen to me."

Whatever the thinking that leads to the entrapment, Field emphasized that the individuals directly involved are not the only victim.

"When someone is killed in a grain bin, the family is left with a sorrow that won't go away," he said. "Often these are multi-generational farms where they can't run away from it and have to go back to work the next day and empty out that grain. I know of some families who have actually bulldozed down the bin. And down the road, it can impact their standard living, including sometimes the loss of opportunities for their children to attend college."

Besides Field, other speakers offered tips for staying safe around grain throughout the day.

"If the auger's running, stay out of the bin!" said Steve Swain, Purdue rural rehabilitation specialist.

"Little farm kids like to play in gravity flow wagons, but these too can be very dangerous," said Lisa Chaudion, Indiana FFA Foundation executive director. "They're not a sand pile."

As a result of a record number of grain bin incidents and fatalities in 2010, Gov. Mitch Daniels contacted Field to see what could be done to reduce the number of accidents. As a result of the governor's inquiry, Purdue developed a Farm Accident Rescue Program, which trains volunteer and professional firefighters and first responders from around the state. Many state volunteer fire departments now have members who have been trained in farm rescue procedures such as grain bin rescues and tractor rollover extractions.

"Farm accident and grain bin rescue capabilities are a void nationwide," said Steve Wettschurack, an instructor for Purdue's Farm Accident Rescue Program. "We developed an eight-hour block of instruction, and in the last two years we've done 85 classes in 64 different counties in Indiana, and trained over 2,000 individuals. The classes are only $65 per individual, and most of our classes are full."

With the classes being so well received in Indiana, other states have begun to request the training. Classes have been presented in Ohio, Michigan, South Dakota, Nebraska and Missouri, and more states are requesting the classes.

Purdue has also developed a grain bin rescue tube, which can be used for workers deeply buried in grain. The tube is shoved into the grain around the individual, and then the grain is suctioned out with a shop vac or similar device. Field said that he knew of at least four victims who had been successfully rescued through the use of the tube.

Following Wettschurack's remarks, the program received a boost from Farm Credit Mid-America. Area representatives of the ag lending co-op presented a check for $25,000 to Wettschurack to help continue the program.

Field also discussed another pitfall of farm accidents, liability. He said the world had changed drastically in the last 25 to 30 years, when back then there was an "assumed risk" that one might encounter a cow in the middle of the road in a rural community. But now, with much more litigation, farmers are looked at as having assets, and aggressive attorneys are going after them—insurance, land or whatever will get money for their clients.

"Now if you spill manure on the road and someone skids in it and hits a tree, you're going to pay," he said. "I know of one farm where two boys died in a grain bin accident, and that farm probably won't be in business much longer."

Other activities of the conference included stations where attendees could rotate and observe a grain bin entrapment simulator, a tractor rollover rescue, and the proper inspection and use of a fire extinguisher. Later in the afternoon, a rescue helicopter from IU Health in Indianapolis paid a visit that included the simulated rescue and airlifting of a volunteer victim. Wettschurack said that having rescue helicopters available provided an important link between the state's rural areas and its Level I trauma centers located at Methodist and Riley Hospitals.

"These choppers make high-quality health care much more accessible to rural citizens," he said.

During the afternoon session, Field showed an excellent new DVD on grain bin safety. The DVD was produced by the National Corn Growers Assn., with much of the footage filmed at Purdue. Hard copies will be available soon, but in the meantime individuals may view or download either a short or long version of the video on YouTube by visiting

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