Identifying grain bin hazards
Learn about grain bin hazards related to augers, bin collapses, PTOs, fires and explosions, toxic atmospheres and more.
When one thinks of grain bin hazards, entrapment most often is the first thing that comes to mind – and with good reason. It takes less than five seconds to become helplessly trapped in flowing grain and less than 30 seconds to become fully engulfed.
But grain bin hazards aren’t limited to entrapment or engulfment. Other, equally-hazardous situations include augers, bin collapses, Power Take-Offs (PTOs), fires and explosions, toxic atmospheres, electrical components and even ladders.
Identifying and understanding bin hazards is vital to ensuring safety. Some common and hazardous situations that can occur when working with grain bins are:
- Flowing grain. Entrapment is the most often identified hazard and cause of injury when working with flowing grain. Like quicksand, flowing grain will pull a 165-pound man down to waist level in seconds and bury him in less than a minute. Most experts agree that once you have grain above your knees, there’s almost no chance of escape without assistance. Learn how you can nominate your local fire department to win grain bin rescue training and a rescue tube.
- Bridged grain. A grain bridge is a hardened, crust-like mass of grain that contains a cavity or pocket underneath. Caused by out-of-conditioned grain or prolonged periods of freezing temperatures, this inconspicuous hazard is a death trap for any worker. Never enter the bin to “walk the grain.” Instead, break up the grain using a long pole from outside the bin.
- Crusted grain. Like bridged grain, crusted grain is often caused by high-moisture content. But instead of forming a grain bridge, the grain sticks to the bin walls. If a worker enters the bin to break the grain free, the grain can “avalanche” and completely engulf and suffocate the worker. Again, using a long pole from outside the bin is the best and safest way to break up the grain.
- Augers. Grain bin augers present serious entanglement and amputation hazards. When proper precautions aren’t followed, workers are exposed to serious injury or death. Grain bin augers include reclaim augers, sweep augers, fill augers and stirring augers.
A reclaim auger is typically found in the bin floor and used to unload or empty grain from the bin. This auger is fed by sumps or drains inside the bin. When left uncovered, a worker’s foot can easily become entangled in the rotating screw – and amputation is usually the result.
A sweep auger is a horizontal auger that’s used to push grain remaining at the bottom of a storage bin toward the bin’s discharge sump opening. It rotates around the discharge opening to “sweep” the grain toward the opening. By design, a portion of the auger’s screw assembly is unguarded to allow the auger to function properly; therefore, exposing workers to dangerous moving parts. Workers shouldn’t work in a bin while a sweep auger is running, except as outlined in an OSHA memorandum, which clarifies the Agency’s position related to the operation of sweep augers inside grain storage structures during employee entry.
There are automated grain bin-based drying systems that use unguarded-collection augers operating in the bottom of the bin. These bins should never be entered while the drying system is in operation because the collection augers can’t be seen under the grain.
A fill auger is used to fill a bin and can be either permanent or portable/PTO-driven. If guards or safety shields are not in place, serious injury – even death – can occur. An unguarded PTO can easily catch loose clothing or any other loose object and can wrap a person onto it in less than 1 second. As with augers, never operate equipment powered by a PTO without the proper guards in place.
A stirring auger is used in a drying bin to turn over grain and shorten drying time. A stirring auger is completely unguarded and can easily catch loose clothing and entangle a worker. Never enter a bin when stirring augers are running.
Bin collapses. Some reclaim augers utilize multiple sumps: a main sump in the center of the bin and auxiliary sumps between the center and the wall of the bin. Bins should always be emptied using only the main sump until grain is lowered to a level where it can no longer flow to the main sump by gravity. At that point, use the auxiliary sumps starting with the one closest to the center working to the outside one sump at a time. If the auxiliary sump is used to empty a full bin, it results in an uneven loading condition that can lead to a bin collapse, resulting in crushing or engulfment injuries.
Fires and explosions. As seeds or kernels are handled, grain dust is produced and can become suspended in air or accumulate on floors, ledges, beams and equipment. And when conditions are right, suspended grain dust can ignite and explode, causing catastrophic damage and huge financial and human loss. Preventing grain dust explosions requires you to follow a comprehensive dust and ignition control program, which may include the use of an oil suppression system.
Toxic atmospheres. Grain dust also poses a respiratory hazard to some people. Reactions or complications can range from difficulty breathing and stomach problems to skin irritations and rashes. Grain that is out of condition or deteriorating can release toxic gases and create an oxygen-deficient atmosphere. To reduce the risk of serious injury or death, it’s crucial to always consider the potential for a toxic atmosphere, introduce ventilation when needed and to always wear the proper protective equipment for the appropriate conditions.
Electrical components. Today, more and more farmers and commercial grain companies are acquiring older grain-handling facilities with the intent of increasing storage capacity. Due to poor maintenance or neglect, older facilities tend to have numerous electrical hazards, such as frayed electrical cords, open and rusted breaker boxes and broken electrical conduits. Before beginning any work, we strongly recommend you hire a certified electrician to thoroughly inspect electrical system components to reduce the risk of electrocution or fire.
Ladders. Although injuries from slips and falls aren’t as severe as injuries involving augers or PTO’s, significant injuries can occur when a person falls from a bin ladder. As with all ladders, remember to maintain three points of contact. The three points of contact rule is simple – always maintain one hand and two feet, or two hands and one foot, when climbing or descending ladders, trucks and equipment.