As grain-handling systems increase in size, so do hazards

Bins and grain handling equipment form hazardous environments that demand training, procedures, and emergency plans to prevent injury and death. | File photo

In an ideal world, moving grain should be a positive and stress-free task, regardless of whether you’re moving grain off the field and into storage, or out of storage and into the elevator.

Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

In today’s world of big bushels, super-sized storage bins and high-capacity handling equipment, things can go off the rails in hurry.

That’s why the potential for injury or death should always be considered before trucks, augers and conveyors are fired up and thrown into gear.

To avoid unwanted outcomes, always plan ahead, anticipate problems that might occur, have emergency plans in place and never work alone.

Rob Gobeil, agricultural safety and health specialist with the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association says on average, about four people die each year in Canada when handling grain.

Numerous injuries and close calls that could have resulted in fatalities are never reported, he added.

“The size of grain handling facilities — including the bins themselves — has gone ballistic,” said Gobeil, when asked to comment the importance of grain-handling safety and awareness on today’s modern farms.

“It’s not uncommon today to hear of a 100,000 bushel bin,” he added.

“The hazards have increased almost exponentially just because of the size, the volume and the movement rate of the equipment inside the bin itself….”

With today’s larger equipment, greater volumes of grain are moved at higher rates of speed than ever before.

As fill and unload speeds increase, the speed at which grain entrapments, engulfments and injuries can occur has also increased.

According to CASA, a six-inch grain auger is capable of moving about 2,500 bushels of grain an hour, while a 13-inch auger is capable of moving approximately 11,000 bu. an hour.

When drawing grain out of an enclosed storage facility, grain auger diameter and conveyor capacity can drastically change the dynamics of what’s happening inside the bin.

Unfortunately, some growers that use large bins and modern, high-throughput handling systems may not even be aware that grain bins are technically confined spaces.

Confined spaces are regulated under provincial occupational health and safety legislation.

“By law, OHS legislation does mention that if you’re entering a confined space, you need to have training and procedures in place, as well as an emergency response component as well.”

Although grain-handling injuries can occur in many situations and under many different circumstances, incidents that occur inside grain bins can be particularly dangerous.

When grain is in motion or is being drawn out of a bin, it does not provide any support or buoyancy.

Objects inside the bin can be sucked into the grain mass quickly, resulting in engulfment, entrapment, respiratory and circulatory distress or suffocation.

Producers and workers should be especially wary when dealing with grain that is out-of-condition and does not flow properly.

When grain in a bin does not flow properly, workers may be tempted to enter the bin to address the situation.

Upon entry, the risk of injury rises instantly.

Tough or damp grain can bridge or encrust, leaving a surface area intact as the grain below it is drawn out.

Bridged grain is extremely unstable and cannot be trusted to support a person’s weight.

Similarly, out-of condition grain can create cones, pyramids, towers or vertical sidewall buildups that can give way quickly, causing injury, burial and death to people who have ventured inside.

“From what we can tell, the main reason for a grain entrapment to occur or the main cause for an entrapment is out-of-condition grain,” said Gobeil.

“If grain is bridged over on top, we’re creating a void underneath the surface….

“The producer goes into the bin to try to unclog the system or poke away and get the grain flowing again, and when they get on top of that bridged over section… it just gives way and they fall in.”

Poorly conditioned grain within a confined space can also produce toxic gases associated with grain decomposition.

In all cases, air quality inside a grain should be monitored and assessed.

Toxic gases above the grain mass should always be completely removed and displaced with fresh oxygen before bin entry.

“Before we go into a bin, we want to either purge the air and make sure we replace that bad air with good air, or monitor the air quality….”

Running the bin’s aeration system for a period of time before entering is always recommended.

“And always wear the proper fall protection equipment before going into a bin,” added Gobeil.

In all cases, it’s important for growers to monitor the temperature of stored grain, as well as moisture and humidity inside the bin to ensure that grain does not reach the point where spoilage, bridging and vertical column formation can occur.

If drying is not an option or if grain goes into storage in less-than-ideal condition, then circulating or aerating grain frequently can help to avoid hazardous circumstances.

Gobeil also stressed that farmers and farm workers should never work alone.

“Always have a spotter who is trained in emergency response,” said Gobeil.

“It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. As long as the spotter knows how to power down equipment and they know who to call for help.”

“They always need to be available and monitoring that entrant from the outside.”

If a person who enters a grain bin is in trouble, the spotter should never try to perform a rescue without the help of trained professionals.

Rushing in to a confined space to perform a rescue without the proper training, equipment and assistance often results in multiple victims and multiple deaths.

“The main, main thing that we want to communicate to producers is that if a grain entrapment does occur, do not try to rescue that person on your own,” Gobeil said.

“Always call for trained professionals. Call 911 and get the first responders on site as soon as possible.”

Producers who need help in developing an emergency response plan or learning more about grain-handling hazards can contact CASA at

The organization also offers an on-line safety training course for producers, which can be accessed here. It takes about half an hour to complete.

“We all want to go to bed at night in the same condition as we woke up that morning,” said Gobeil.

“As an employer, if we own a farm, if we have employees or unpaid workers, family members, volunteers, helpers or what not, it’s in our best interest to make sure, we have proper safety procedures in place.”

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