Article

Working safely in a hazardous enviroment

The industry is still experiencing fatalities from individuals being fully engulfed by grain.

by David Soldner – Risk Management Consultant, Nationwide

In August 2017, a friend of mine died in a grain bin after being engulfed by soybeans. He knew the danger. He had been trained. He knew how to work safely. Yet in the end, an error or series of errors were made, which caused grain to completely engulf him and cause death by asphyxiation. When telling my wife about my friend’s death, she made the comment that “accidents happen”. I looked her in the eyes and said very deliberately, “This did not have to happen.” Having said that, I left the room to collect my thoughts and emotions. Upon further reflection on my friend’s death, I have once again renewed my commitment to provide educational opportunities that move beyond statistics, and dive into the personal. Let me explain what I mean.

There has been no point in the history of humankind, where we have had access to so much information, so quickly and easily. In fact, much of the information is instantly at our fingertips via laptops, tablets and smart phones. Yet, in many cases this is of no consequence. In fact, more and immediate access to information on working safely in grain doesn’t appear to be reducing the number of grain entrapments to a consistent downward trend. As an industry, we are still experiencing fatalities due to individuals being fully engulfed by grain, my friend being a case in point.

Why does it still happen?

1. Regular positive outcomes with unsafe behavior

When analyzing the reasons why we engage in unsafe behavior, it is my belief that the fundamental reason why we put ourselves at risk is that we have previously experienced a positive outcome with an unsafe behavior. How many times have we stepped over an unguarded PTO shaft? How many times have we walked by unguarded belts and pulleys? How many times have we looked at our cell phone while driving our pickup truck? How many times have we talked on our cell phone while in heavy traffic? How many times have we driven too fast when the roads were icy? How many times have we been in a grain bin with the unload auger running and no guard over the sump? How many times have we been in grain in poor condition with no respiratory protection? How many times have we walked down grain? How many times have we dislodged grain that was stuck to the wall of the bin above our heads? Why do we keep doing unsafe behaviors? Because we have previously experienced a positive outcome for an unsafe behavior. In other words, we haven’t been injured so we continue to work unsafely.

2. Poor or incomplete hazard analysis of the space we’re are about to enter

Before entering a grain storage structure, we must assess many things.

  • The condition of the grain. Is it in good condition or out of condition? Is it crusted, moldy, bridged or columned? Grain in good condition, given enough space, will flow to its angle of repose. Simply put, the angle of repose is the internal angle between the surface of the pile and the horizontal surface upon which the pile rests. Corn, for example, will flow to approximately 24 degrees before it stops flowing. We know that gravity is constantly exerting force on that pile of corn. So, if crusted or hung up corn suddenly breaks free, it will move to its angle of repose quickly and with great force. If we happen to be on top of the grain, trying to get it to move by walking it down, we are putting ourselves (and potentially others if they are in the bin with us) in danger of being engulfed by the grain.
  • The quality of the air in the bin. If we have grain that is out of condition, hydrogen sulfide (H2S) may be present. H2S is poisonous, corrosive and flammable. It smells like rotten eggs. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is also a by-product of the decomposition of plant materials. It has no odor and displaces oxygen (O2) in the atmosphere. This can lead to low O2 levels which are detrimental to our health. Methane (CH4) is another by-product of the decomposition of grain. It is flammable and its possible presence must be considered.
  • Unguarded equipment. Entering a grain bin with an unguarded sweep auger that is in motion is asking for trouble. The sweep auger must be locked out so that it cannot suddenly start while we are in the bin. An unguarded sump with the auger or drag conveyor running is also a significant safety risk that we want to avoid. Be sure to lock out the grain unload equipment before entering the bin.

The hard truth here is that all this cautionary messaging is probably information you have already heard. That’s okay, because part of my job as an educator is to remind you of things that you already know.

So, let’s remind ourselves of one more truth: There isn’t any commodity that we handle or machine that we operate that is worth our life or our health. Think about it for a moment. Repeat it slowly in your mind. Maybe even say it out loud. There isn’t any commodity that we handle or machine that we operate that is worth our life or our health.

The second and final truth that we must consider is this: It is in the context of relationships that our lives are enriched. To put it another way, who will miss me when I’m gone? We owe it not only to ourselves to work safely, we owe it to those around us whom we love and in-turn love us.

Clarence the angel, from the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, said it best, “Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?”

In August of this year, when my friend died after being engulfed in grain, he left “an awful hole” in my heart. Please, for the sake of those you love, take all the necessary steps to ensure that you won’t lose your life as a result of working unsafely in and around grain.