According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it only takes five seconds for a worker to become engulfed in flowing gain and unable to escape—60 seconds to be completely submerged. Because of this, more than half of all cases of grain engulfment result in workers being suffocated to death. Researchers at Purdue University in Indiana reported that in the past 50 years, there were an estimated 900 cases of grain engulfment, with a fatality rate of 62 percent. Additionally, in 2010, the United States experienced the highest number of these fatalities on record when at least 26 workers were killed as a result of being engulfed in grains.

Hazards of Flowing Grain

Stored grain can be very dangerous. Air pockets inside the packed grains can shift, causing it to flow. And this sudden flow of grain can engulf or trap people working in grain bins or silos. Since the grain acts like quicksand and can bury a worker in a matter of seconds, and the weight of the grain makes it extremely difficult for a trapped worker to escape. It's no surprise, then, that suffocation is the leading cause of death in grain storage bins.

To prevent or reduce the risk of suffocation in grain bins, workers must:

  • Not enter the grain bins during active loading or unloading
  • Only enter the grain bin when there is no other alternative
  • Ensure that a co-worker is present outside the bin and that verbal communication with them is maintained the entire time
  • Make sure that the co-worker can quickly and easily contact emergency responders in the event of grains shifting
  • Not enter grain bins without being equipped with the proper personal protective equipment
  • Always turn off and lockout tagout all equipment used to ensure that the grain is not moving (see Understanding Lockout / Tagout Safety to learn more)

Other Grain Bin Hazards

There are hazards other than the risk of being trapped when working in grain bins. Here are some of the hazardous situations employees might encounter:

1. Toxic atmospheres

Grain dust poses a respiratory hazard. Decomposing grains release toxic gases, which create an oxygen-deficient atmosphere. As a result, employees may experience difficulty breathing, skin irritations and rashes, and stomach discomfort.

To prevent or reduce the potential for a toxic atmosphere, make sure that there is proper ventilation and encourage workers to wear the right proper protective equipment, such as respirators.

Before workers enter a grain silo, measure the air quality from the outside, as well as side to side and top to bottom. The samples will indicate whether the oxygen content is within safe limits, toxic gases are present, and ventilation equipment is functioning properly.

2. Fires and explosions

Grain dust can become suspended in the air and accumulate on floors, walls, and equipment. Under certain conditions, this grain dust can ignite and explode, causing not only damage to property, but also worker fatalities.

To deal with these hazards, develop and implement a comprehensive dust and ignition control program. Never carry out welding or grinding activities in a bin that contains grain. And be sure to educate workers about the dangers of smoking in or around grain bins, whether with toolbox talks or "No Smoking" signs in key locations. Finally, perform routine maintenance checks to reduce the risk of ignition due to machinery failure.

3. Falls from height

Falls from height can occur from surfaces in and around the grain bin, including machinery, roofs, unguarded holes, wall and floor openings, and platforms. Falls can also occur from the grain bin ladders.

Make sure that workers have fall protection, such as a personal fall arrest system. Train and educate workers on the three points of contact rule for safely using ladders (find out more about 3-Point Contact). Any ladder that reaches higher than 20 feet requires caged steps.

4. Mechanical equipment

Mechanical equipment, such as augers and conveyors, increase the risk for amputation and entanglement. Unless they are properly guarded, it is very easy for workers to get their limbs caught in the machinery's moving parts.

Working with properly guarded machinery is essential (for a refresher on machine guard safety, see Safety Meeting Topics: Ensure You Have an Effective Machine Guard). Educate workers on the use of personal protective clothing, and remind them that their clothes should not be loose-fitting. Only allow workers to use machinery if they have been properly trained to operate it and understand the safety guidelines, such as not operating the sweep auger while inside the grain bin.

5. Electrocution

This is one of the most overlooked hazards with regards to grain bin safety, but it's a very real one. Augers may come into contact with overhead wires when moving, which can result in the electrocution of workers. Additionally, more farmers, as well as commercial gain companies, are using older equipment and machinery, which can pose numerous electrical hazards due to neglect or poor maintenance.

Have a certified electrician regularly and thoroughly inspect all grain bin machinery and equipment to identify faults or wear and tear that could result in electrocution.

Safety First

Working with grains is a high-risk job that exposes workers to numerous serious and life-threatening hazards on a daily basis. However, by taking the time to implement a few simple but effective control measures, employers and safety professionals can significantly reduce the risk to employees working in the grain handling industry.