The death count from frightful incidents involving enclosed grain elevators is on the rise — a stark reminder to West Michigan’s agricultural industry of the dangers of grain handling.
In May, Robert Othmer died after he was buried under shifting corn inside one of the silos on his farm in Barry County. The silo reportedly contained between 900,000 and 1.2 million pounds of the grain.
Two months later, two employees at The Andersons Inc. (Nasdaq: ANDE), an Ohio-based processor with 13 facilities in Michigan, became trapped in another corn silo and perished.
The back-to-back fatal accidents served as an abrupt reminder and warning to the region’s farmers.
Receiving, handling, storing, processing and shipping bulk raw commodities like corn, wheat, oats, barley, sunflower seeds and soybeans are part of a “high hazard industry,” according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Workers in the grain-handling industry face a number of serious and life-threatening hazards, including “dust explosions” set off by sparks in the highly combustible environments, entanglement and amputation caused by mechanical equipment and confined-space engulfment.
Moving grain can bury a person in seconds and suffocation is a leading cause of death in grain storage bins, according to a report from Purdue University.
In recent years, incidents of grain engulfment and entrapment have increased because of larger storage capacities, faster handling and automated equipment, according to the data.
The “flow” characteristic of grain is what causes fatal accidents, according to Craig Anderson, manager of agricultural labor and safety services for the Michigan Farm Bureau.
“Due to our body weight and the characteristics of our body, our body will flow through that grain quicker than the grain itself,” he said. “If you do have a flowing situation, you can be sucked into that grain very, very rapidly as opposed to being able to remain at its surface.”
Once a person is drawn into the grain below their waist, the weight on their chest is enough to be fatal.
“The grain begins to press upon and minimize the opportunity for your lungs to expand and your chest to expand and that leads to a suffocation risk,” Anderson said.
Although there is no cumulative public record of these incidents because there are no comprehensive or mandatory incident or injury reporting systems in agriculture, reports indicate the number of dangerous and fatal workplace incidents this year involving grain may be historically high.
Since the 1970s, the Agricultural Safety and Health Program at Purdue University has been documenting and investigating incidents involving grain storage and handling facilities. As of the end of 2018, the data contained information on 2,050 cases.
Unlike most other types of farming accidents, fatalities and injuries, entrapments and engulfments have been gradually increasing over the past 20 years — although some additions could be attributed to better incident reporting and data.
In 2018, the most recent year for which Purdue University data are available, there were 61 documented cases, an increase of 13 percent over the 54 cases reported in 2017 and above the five-year average of 58.8. Of the incidents from last year, 30 — nearly half — were documented cases of grain entrapment, half of which were fatal.
Historically, nearly one in five of all agricultural incidents in confined spaces has involved children and youth under the age of 21, according to the report.
Based on earlier research, it is estimated that as many as 30 percent of cases go unreported because of a reluctance by some victims and employers to report non-fatal incidents and “near-misses.”
Entrapments and engulfments have been documented in a wide variety of grains, including soybeans, oats, wheat, flaxseed, and canola, according to the report, but half of all documented cases involve corn.
The number of reported cases of engulfment “ebb and flow,” according to the Farm Bureau’s Anderson, based on the moisture and quality of the harvest. This year’s historically wet spring could lead to an increased threat to the grain industry.
In many cases of engulfment, moisture hardens the top layer of grain inside a silo and creates a “bridge.” As grain underneath the top layer is removed, voids appear that can suck a person deep within the confined space.
“With the very wet spring that we had, if you had a situation where you may have had an infiltration and by virtue of some of the heavy rains that we have had, now you have a wet grain area that could become moldy and begin to harden,” he said. “That’s where unfortunately we wind up getting into an entry situation.”
Later harvests also lead to higher moisture levels, he added.
Good facility maintenance, a “firm understanding” of grain quality and safety harnesses can all lessen the risk of a life-threatening situation, according to Anderson.
“You always want to have at least two people in any type of bin entry to ensure that if, in fact, it happens, you have the ability to immediately communicate to a response structure to hopefully do an extraction very rapidly,” he said.
Communication with first responders is crucial before and during an emergency situation, as well. Successful local response teams have an understanding of what is on each farm and what they might need in case of the need for an extraction, according to Anderson.
“Not all first responders are prepared to deal with some of the bin structures that we have,” he said. “Mutual aid agreements are in place, but the responders need to know what it is that they are going to encounter to be able to properly develop those.”
Rescuers from three area fire departments reportedly responded to the scene at the Othmer farm. Instead of futilely digging into the corn, crews cut holes into the side of the silo to drain as much of corn out as possible — but it was still too late.
“The community is aware that there are circumstances that do come up that we don’t have complete and ready solutions for,” Anderson said.
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