Feed, grains continue to kill in the US

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In 2016, the US saw 30 deaths related to confined agricultural spaces including feed grain bins and handling facilities, says safety expert.

Details on the reported cases of people who have been killed or injured in incidents involving grain or confined spaces were included in a report from the agricultural safety and health program at Purdue University. The report includes cases where people are engulfed in grain, falls, asphyxiation and entanglements with equipment in enclosed spaces.

However, the 60 fatal and non-fatal cases documented were not thought to be the total amount that occurred during the year, said Bill Field, professor of agricultural safety and health at Purdue and report co-author.

About half of grain storage happens in commercial facilities that have to document incidents and comply with grain safety standards set by the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), he said. But, many grain handling facilities are exempt from that requirement.

It is estimated that about 30% of cases are not reported, the report authors said. “There is no accumulative public record of these incidents due to the fact that there is no comprehensive or mandatory incident/injury reporting systems for most of agriculture; in addition, there has been reluctance on the part of some victims and employers to report non-fatal incidents, especially at farms, feedlots and seed processing operations,” they added.

The report is part of ongoing work to reduce the number of incidents and, in addition, efforts have been made to train fire departments on rescue techniques, educate grain and feed industry members, promote industry standards and write safety labels for grain bins, said Field. “We’ve tried to raise the consciousness of everyone involved with handling grain,” he added.

“I think it would be hard for anyone in the grain industry to say they’re not aware of the problem,” he told FeedNavigator. “But we live in a time where there is a tremendous amount of litigation, so a farmer or employer will say, ‘I just didn’t realize.’”

Incidents likely continue for several reasons, including that not all actions involving grain are thought to be dangerous, and potentially because of complacency, he said.

“The issue is not awareness, it’s complacency,” he said. “It’s putting kids and workers in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Report statistics

In 2016, the 60 reported fatal and non-fatal incidents included 29 grain entrapment cases, 11 falls either into or from grain storage bins, eight entanglements that happened inside an agricultural confined space and 10 asphyxiations from toxic environments, the authors said.  

“People die in feed, they die in pellets,” said Field.

The past year saw 29 entrapments in grain and 11 fatalities, which was an increase in overall entrapments, but a drop in fatalities from the previous year, said the authors.

“The number one item is corn, and the number one problem is out-of-condition grain,” said Field. “They send [employees] in with a shovel or pickax to clean out the grain.”

Incidents of asphyxiation, falls and engulfment had the highest fatality rates at 100%, 64% and 38%, respectively, said the authors. Last year was the second time in recent years where the number of fatalities equaled or was larger than the non-fatal events.

With 30 fatal incidents, the year saw more than the five-year average, but was below the 10-year average for fatalities related to enclosed spaces in agriculture, they said. The year also saw a 25% increase in the number of total documented cases.

“The 5-year running average for confined space-related cases continued to decrease from its peak in 2011 of 75.8 cases/year to 59.2 cases/year; thus was the lowest reported five-year average since 2008,” said the authors. “This marks the first significant decrease since the five-year average started to steadily increase in 2002 from 36.8 cases per year.”  

For all types of recorded instances, there were eight cases that involved either a child or person younger than 21, they said. The youngest known victim was 4 years old and the oldest was 79, but 17 cases did not specify age.

For grain entrapments, two cases involved a female victim, one person’s gender was not determined and 26 were male, the authors said. Three of the instances, including two fatalities, involved grain transport vehicles.

“When we started people could not believe that a child could suffocate in a grain wagon,” said Field. “And we’ve collected [that] data.”

Permissive culture

There could be several elements that contribute to why confined space or grain engulfment incidents continue to happen, said Field. “We have this culture that we accept these risks as part of ensuring a stable food supply,” he added.

“Grain bins have a fairly limited access, so we’re putting skinny young guys in there to clean them out – but they’re the least trained, they have the least experience,” he said. “And 40 years ago, rural elevators hired farm kids, but now those kids are really rare.”

Additionally, there can be a perception that some actions, like allowing children to ride on grain carts, are not dangerous, or when the focus is on the reward from the behavior, not the risk, he said. “But in my mind, there is an expendable nature we put on low-paid, hourly folks in agriculture,” he added.

Changing trends

It is anticipated that as tower silos age and are used less often in favor of bunk storage or bagged silage the number of incidents will decline, the authors said. “The data appears to support this position,” they added.

“We’re getting rid of a lot of old country elevators and our grain storage is becoming consolidated,” said Field. “The systems that are used to store and remove grain are getting more effect and effective.”

Larger companies involved in grain storage are also starting to use more modern facilities like no-entry systems, that have been designed to minimize worker risk from grain, he said.

Another changing trend is that more calls asking about grain entrapment are starting to come from the southern US, he said.

“We think it’s because corn production is moving south and they’re not as familiar with it,” he said. “We’re seeing more cases of spoiled grain and more calls from southern facilities struggling.”

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