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Technology and bin safety

From automated grain-bin management systems to mobile apps, technology is helping to reduce deadly grain bin accidents

Embracing technology is nothing new for farmers. From the very beginning, farmers have been utilizing the latest technologies to help change and advance the agricultural system.

Thanks to modern farming techniques, America's farmers and ranchers are producing more food on fewer acres than ever before. In fact, when you think of farming and technology, advances in production may be one of the first things that comes to mind.

But what about safety? Not food safety, but rather “farmer” safety. Why is it that farming continues to rank as one of the most hazardous occupations year after year?   

We have identified a few new and not-so-new technologies for farmers and grain handlers to consider to help keep themselves and others safe when working in or around grain bins.

Nationwide does not endorse any of the products or companies listed below. Rather, the aim of this article is to highlight the innovative ideas and hard work of others to help prevent deadly grain bin accidents.

Automated grain-bin management

Let’s be clear, grain bin safety starts with proper grain management. And when it comes to the aeration and cooling of grain, electronic monitoring and cooling is king.

Automated grain-bin management takes the guesswork out of managing stored grain by providing 24/7 electronic monitoring — right from your PC. Today’s electronic monitoring and control systems can help you optimize grain condition and storage profitability, while minimizing grain spoilage, grain clumps and grain flow stoppages — the leading cause of grain bin entry.

Digital sensors capture the smallest change in temperature, humidity and moisture levels and automatically adjust aeration and cooling systems to help maintain grain quality.    

One of the biggest reasons someone enters a grain bin is to check the condition of the grain. Remote access to accurate, real-time readings allows you to quickly and easily make adjustments from your home or office without entering a grain bin — keeping you out of harm’s way.

Remote grain augers

A sweep auger is just one of many different grain bin hazards. A person coming into contact with an energized or running sweep auger faces almost certain death or serious bodily injury. During an accident, the time it takes to shut down a conventional sweep auger can feel like an eternity.

In September, 2016, a 28-year-old man lost his leg after a co-op auger accident in Ellsworth when his leg became caught in a running auger.

Improved technology now allows for a sweep auger’s power source to be attached to a remote system that is synced to a transmitter attached to a belt and a receiver box located on the auger. If communication between the receiver and transmitter is broken for any reason, the system shuts down the auger immediately.  

Communication can be interrupted in several ways — depending on the emergency. For example, a button on the transmitter can be manually pushed if the operator senses danger. The auger will also stop if the transmitter falls off the operator or if the transmitter’s battery fails.

Mighty Mini and Cluster Buster

Even with proper grain management, pockets of out-of-condition or frozen grain can still develop and plug outlets during unloading. When a grain bin is not properly equipped, workers may be forced to enter the bin to break up the crusted material using long pipes or other means. This exposes workers to the risk of grain entrapment or engulfment and other grain bin hazards.  

Numerous products are currently on the market that utilize innovative technologies to break up blockages quickly and efficiently, while keeping workers safe. The Mighty Mini by Sump Saver and the Cluster Buster by Sukup are two such products.

The Mighty Mini fits over the grate at the bottom of a grain bin and has propeller-like blades that break up clumps of grain, preventing the auger from jamming and keeping the grain flowing. Similar to the Mighty Mini, the Cluster Buster uses a cable spinning at high speeds to break up grain clumps around the center sump that block the flow of grain. Both pieces of equipment are operated safely from outside the grain bin.

Grain rescue tubes

A grain rescue tube is a proven, popular rescue tool with emergency personnel to help extract victims from grain entrapments or grain engulfments. Trying to pull someone out of waist-deep grain is almost impossible and could cause serious bodily injury or death to the victim.

Today, there are numerous grain rescue tubes on the market. Most come in lightweight, interlocking sections or panels that can be easily carried into a bin and assembled around a victim.

Once in place, the tube serves as a barrier by reducing the crushing pressure on the victim and preventing more grain from pushing up against the victim. Emergency personnel then use a portable grain rescue auger, buckets, scoops or other means to remove the grain from inside the tube until the victim can be safely freed.

You can help your local fire department or emergency rescue team win a grain rescue tube and rescue training by nominating them in our third-annual Nominate Your Fire Department Contest.

During the last five years, the national contest awarded tubes and training to over 70 fire departments in more than 20 states. One of those winners — The Westphalia Fire Department in Kansas — used their new skills in 2015 to rescue a man who became entrapped in grain.

Contest contributors include CHS, GSI, M.F. Block Insurance, KC Supply Co., the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety and other partners.     

Grain Rescue Tube Locator

The Grain Rescue Tube Locator helps farmers, grain elevator operators, emergency responders and others locate the closest available grain rescue tube by way of a free mobile app, available on iTunes and Google Play.

Originally named the Illinois Grain Rescue Locater, this useful tool maps grain rescue tubes located mostly in Illinois, but new locations in other states are being added all the time.  

The Grain Rescue Tube Locator can help speed up response time when a grain engulfment or grain entrapment call goes out, and give farmers and other grain handlers peace of mind (or concern) knowing a grain rescue tube is (or is not) nearby.

If a grain rescue tube is not available in your area, we encourage you to enter your local fire department in the Nominate Your Fire Department Contest for a chance to win a grain rescue tube and rescue training.

Grain rescue augers

Grain rescue augers work in tandem with grain bin rescue tubes to expedite the removal of grain from around an entrapped victim’s body. Easy-to-use and portable, a rescue auger attaches to a cordless power drill and removes approximately 2 bushels of grain per minute. The rescue auger allows grain to be removed more quickly and easily than scooping grain by hand with buckets, reducing stress on the victim. Watch product demo.

Bin Bot

Developed by a South Dakota farmer, this miniature, remote-controlled skid-steer loader is designed to go inside grain bins to assist with clean-out in situations that are dangerous for humans. Powered by food-grade hydraulic oil, the Bin Bot can push, pull or lift the sweep and knock down a wall of grain. In a few minutes, it can complete a job that would normally take 4-5 workers to do — and not risk any lives in the process.

Safety nets

The Spider is a safety net prototype invented by Kenny Bassett after learning of the high-fatality rate of grain bin entrapments. The safety net lies across the entire top of the grain so that if a person is walking across the grain and it gives way, the net prevents that person from being engulfed. The net can be lowered as the grain level drops, and pulled back up when the bin is refilled. To learn more, please visit kbia.org.

Nationwide does not condone the practice of “walking down the grain” to expedite the flow of grain. If you must enter a grain bin, it should be as a last resort and all safe grain bin entry procedures must be followed.  

Consult with bin manufacturers

Always consult with the bin manufacturer before beginning any projects that involve structural changes or equipment modifications. Any and all proposed changes must be approved by the bin manufacturer before any cutting or alterations can take place. In addition, it’s always a good idea to seek the advice and counsel of qualified licensed professionals.