As grain bins grow, so does focus on safety

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Posted: Saturday, November 9, 2013 12:00 am

GRAND ISLAND, Neb. — Members of the Grand Island Fire Department received training in “grain entrapment prevention” this week at the Global R&D Center in Grand Island.

The two-day training session was sponsored by Global Industries of Grand Island, a leading manufacturer of grain bins. The session focused on preparing firefighters and emergency responders to use real-life techniques for rescue or recovery operations for an entrapped person.

The training was conducted by Bill Harp, director of the Safety and Technical Rescue Association, and Wayne Bauer, safety and security director for the Star of the West Milling Co.

Volkan Kebeli, vice president of engineering for Global Industries, said the main purpose of the session was to “increase the awareness for our employees when they get into the bin sites so they don't get into any trouble by being trapped or engulfed.”

Between 2007 and 2012, there was an annual U.S. average of 17 fatalities and 35.7 entrapments in grain bins.

According to Global Industries, 70 percent of grain entrapments have been on farms historically, but in 2011, 74 percent took place off-farm. From 1964 through 2011, 68 percent of the incidents happened around steel bins. In 2011, 63 percent of the incidents involved corn.

Kebeli said training firefighters and emergency responders is important because they often are first on the scene.

With grain harvests getting bigger every year, bins have also become bigger. For example, Kebeli said, the average farm-site grain bin today averages about 50,000 bushels. Ten years ago, the average was probably 10,000.

An average bushel of corn weighs between 56 pounds and 60 pounds, meaning the weight of the grain in that bin is enormous, making rescue and survival of the entrapped even more difficult.

With the explosive growth in the size of today's harvest — Nebraska corn farmers are expected to bring in more than 1.6 billion bushels of corn this year — farms are bigger and more farmers have added grain bins for storage, especially with the growth of the state's ethanol industry.

Harp said bins have gotten stronger to hold the weight of 50,000 bushels of corn, which makes them harder for rescuers to cut through to get to a trapped person. Once a person is engulfed up to the waist in grain, escape is nearly impossible without assistance.

The rescue difficulty is even greater at a commercial site, which can average more than 300,000 bushels of corn.

“When you get engineers that are really good at engineering structures and then we start cutting holes in structures that they haven't anticipated, we really have some big problems,” Harp said.

Kebeli said Global Industries has added many safety features to bins, such as anchors, to provide help to emergency responders and their rescue equipment.

But he said many older, still-usable grain bins on farms lack the safety features.

Bauer said entrapment is a big safety concern in the industry.

“Back in 2010, the industry inadvertently buried someone in grain on the average of one person per week for the whole year,” Bauer said.

He said the number of fatalities, too, has increased compared with 30 years ago, because of multiple factors.

First, he said, farmers are holding their grain longer after harvest for marketing reasons.

“Another issue is that the bins are getting much, much larger,” Bauer said. “The handling capacities have increased tremendously. We aren't handling grain with 4-inch augers anymore.

“The averaging handling capacity has increased at least four times on a bushels-per-hour basis in the last 20 years. ”

And, Bauer said, there has simply been a “huge increase in corn production. ”

“All those things have come into play with the numbers we have been seeing in the number of fatalities,” he said.

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