By AMELIA HAVANEC
Capital News Service
LANSING – As farmers move grain from harvested fields to large cylindrical silos and bins, these traditional agricultural symbols can become death traps for farmers.
At least 38 grain storage structure incidents occurred throughout the country last year – up 15 percent since 2013 – and 17 of the 38 cases were fatal, according to the Agricultural Safety and Health Program at Purdue University.
Two of the incidents happened in Michigan, including the death of 30-year-old Eric Rodman, who was engulfed by soybeans after falling into a rail car at the Andersons Grain Group in St. Joseph County.
In the other incident, 67-year-old Mike Thrams was trapped inside a grain bin in Branch County, where flowing corn rose to his diaphragm. Relief efforts took almost 90 minutes before he was successfully pulled out.
“It’s like trying to walk out of quicksand,” said Wayne Bauer, director of safety and security at the Star of the West Milling Co. in Frankenmuth, which operates grain elevators in five states.
He says six to eight of his silos collapse every year.
“If somebody’s not there to shut down the equipment, you’re in trouble. When somebody dies in the bin they generally failed to look at prevention measures,” Bauer said.
In the most recent incident, a grain storage facility at the Archer Daniels Midland Co. just west of Webberville collapsed on Sept. 16, trapping and killing 22-year-old employee Joshua McGhee under a pile of wheat. The cause of the collapse is still being investigated, a representative from the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration said.
The victim is usually a farmer or farm employee who enters the structure to break up grain that hardened and glued together by mold from sustained moisture in the bin. If the clumps aren’t broken up, they can plug outlets and prevent the rest of the grain from flowing freely inside the bin.
Workers who try to scrape the crusted material off bin walls from below can initiate an avalanche of grain to fall and trap them. If a worker is standing on top of the grain and breaks the crust, the softer layers below can engulf the body in seconds.
Half of such situations result in death by suffocation, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Twenty-eight percent of all fatal grain entrapment accidents reported in the past 49 years involve workers less than 21 years of age.
For example, 18-year-old Tommy Osier died in 2011 while trapped under corn from a silo at Pine Grove Farm in Arenac County. The impact was so strong it dislocated his jaw. The teen’s body was recovered four hours later.
The fact that such deaths continue although they’re preventable reveals the importance of grain bin safety training for farmers and local rescue teams, experts say.
“We do a lot of rescue training for emergency responders,” Bauer said, “because when they’re asked to go out into a farm, they usually see something that’s very unique and never experienced before.”
Small and medium-size farms that employ fewer than 10 workers are exempt from many federal health and safety rules, including those that relate to grain bin entry, said Craig Anderson, manager of agricultural labor and safety services at the Michigan Farm Bureau.
“There are a lot of reasons for that, but in the end, each of these facilities is different,” Anderson said. “So developing a code that essentially applies to all is really difficult.”
These farmers are also not required to undergo training, according to Tim Boring, vice president of the Michigan Agri-Business Association.
“We try to reinforce safety procedures so that it becomes second nature for the people working in these facilities,” Boring said. “We want to make sure they’re wearing the proper harnessing equipment and when they enter the grain bin there are spotters.”
The Grain Entrapment Prevention Initiative, built by a committee that involves Bauer, lists seven of the best practices when handling stored grain. The first rule of grain bin safety is to stay out of grain bins whenever possible. The second provision is to never enter alone.
Anderson said, “We remind the farmers that generally the life you save is your own, so we want to make sure that people recognize, understand, and minimize these risks that they have.
“Farmers and farm families do want to do that. But in some circumstances they’re one person and you’ve got to get the job done.”
By AMELIA HAVANEC