Richard Flax hopes he can save someone’s life with his story. Here it is.
“We had a bin we tried to core in December and the grain didn’t come out of it. We decided the only way we could get it unloaded was to unload it out of the sample spout on the side of the bin. We got one side unloaded. We got it down to where we could get into the top door on the side. At that point we put some rods in and were trying to push them down to the side draw. When we got the side draw opened up we were ecstatic because we had been working on this problem for a couple of months and we had gotten it going. We stayed there and were watching the corn go down.”
Richard was in the bin with his grown son, Kevin, and another man outside. Both were getting out of the bin when trouble started.
“I got one leg stuck. Rather than tell them to turn it off until I got out, I told Kevin to go get me a rope so I could pull myself out,” Richard said. “Kevin climbed up the bin and down the bin, got a rope and climbed back up the bin and down the bin. By the time he got the rope, which was about a minute, I was in up to my waist. At that point my toes were probably no more than a couple inches from the floor of the bin, but I wasn’t going to bet my life on it.
“There was a column of grain that had plugged the center well. That column was standing still. There was no corn behind me. The velocity of the corn coming in from both sides was probably twice as fast as you would expect because there was nothing coming in from in front of me or behind me and that made me go down twice as quickly. By the time Kevin threw me the rope they had shut the power off. But then they couldn’t get me out.
“Your perception in the bin changes. I’m staring at that column of grain in the center and it doesn’t look dangerous. The grain lulls you to sleep because it seems to be moving so slowly as I go down and that column of grain gets higher. Until I was in to my waist, I didn’t feel like I was in danger. At that point I was totally helpless.
“We’ve all been in with corn up to the top of our boots, which is normal. You only have to go eight inches or a foot deeper and you can’t move — above your knees and you’re done. It doesn’t take long to get from the top of your boots to above your knees, especially with the big equipment we have today. This was one of our smaller bins. I was just standing there watching and didn’t notice what had changed around me.
“They opened the top section of the side door and let some corn out, but that was only a couple hundred bushels. They tried using a shovel, but where do you put the corn? It comes back as fast as you take it out. At that point we realized we had to have some help. We needed one of those tubes to put around me. We tried a local grain equipment supplier and they did not have one. Then we tried Trupointe and they came right out.
“They knew exactly what to do. They built a box out of plywood that was 2-by-2-by-8. It was just enough to go around me. They used a shop vac to suck the corn out of that box and then it didn’t take much at all to get me loose. We knew we needed help and that was something we did right. By the time it was all said and done, I was very cold and shaking uncontrollably. I had cramps in my legs from the pressure that didn’t go away for 24 hours.
“I think there needs to be equipment that farmers can go get at the elevators or equipment dealers and not be afraid to borrow. Farmers are always needing to fix a sweep or get in the bins for something and I think if the safety equipment was available farmers would use it. You need the equipment but you also need to know how to use it and work quickly.”
Dan Roncolato, the grain facility manager for Trupointe’s South Charleston location, was the man on the scene at the Flax farm.
“The situation could have been a lot worse had it been a bigger bin with more grain. We are trained to handle it because we think about these things every day,” Roncolato said. “You have to know how to react appropriately in the situation. In that situation, you first have to make sure there is no risk of in flowing grain or out flowing grain and that you are not going to disturb the material any more than necessary. You have to understand how the guy got there and analyze the risks. Was there a bridge of grain that he fell through? Was there a conveyor running that pulled him down? Are there columns or peaks in the grain? That is all part of the training. You have to understand the material and how he got there so you can minimize your risk as the rescuer. Just because you have a rescue tube, that doesn’t make it safe to make the rescue. The training behind the tool makes the difference in the situation.
“As soon as we got there our immediate response was to lock out the electrical disconnect that ran the conveyor. We are guaranteeing that, unless that lock is removed, no one is going to start that conveyer. When you have people climbing in and out of that small door, what happens if somebody bumps that right next to the door?”
Then next step is to create a smaller space around the person who is trapped.
“You need to blockade around the person as tightly as possible and then, whether it is a shop vac, a grain shovel, or a hat, you have to get the grain out of that space around the person from the inside of that blockade,” Roncolato said.
Roncolato thinks that farmers need to be aware of the basics of a rescue in case of an emergency situation.
“I think farmers should at least have a general understanding of what needs to happen for a rescue, make some sort of rescue device and know where it is at on the farm before putting themselves in that situation. But, more than that, we need to look at how to avoid even being in that situation,” he said. “On the commercial side, I will not enter that space to do that. On the farm, if you do enter a bin, we need to make sure we have a lifeline attached to us with an attendant to make sure that line stays tight so that we don’t end up engulfed. If you are tied off you can only go in as deep as the slack in the rope.”
In general, a focus on safety needs to be second nature on modern farms, said Dee Jepsen, state leader for the Ohio State University Extension Agricultural Safety & Health Program.
“It should be like getting in a car and putting on your seat belt. Getting into the proper gear before entering a grain bin should be automatic,” Jepsen said. “In Ohio, 6.5% of farm deaths are from grain bins and silos. Overall, the number of deaths on Ohio farms is decreasing, but deaths are on the rise in the grain bin and storage areas. Grain storage and handling systems have drastically changed on today’s modern cash grain farms. There needs to be a complete transformation of safety practices that go along with the management of these facilities. We can’t continue to expect to ‘keep doing things the way we’ve always done them.’ There are increased risks for farmers around these larger bins. A focus on safety is important so that injuries, near-misses, and fatalities are a thing of the past.”
Here are some general grain bin safety tips from OSU Extension Agricultural Safety & Health Program.
• Stay out of the grain bin if possible.
• Never enter a grain bin when the unloading equipment is on, even if the grain isn’t flowing.
• Never enter a grain bin alone. If entry into the bin is necessary, always have at least one observer outside the bin, and make sure all augers are turned off. One person is to enter the bin and the others should remain outside in case an emergency occurs.
• Wear an N-95 respirator when working around the grain, as it keeps 95% of the dust and other pollutants from the grain from entering into the worker’s lungs.
• Don’t enter a bin that has automatic unloading equipment without first locking out power to the equipment.
• Be cautious around out-of-condition grain, including grain caked to walls. Dangers result from molds, blocked flow, cavities, crusting and grain avalanches. Be aware of potential bridging of frozen and/or rotten grain (i.e. crust on grain surface that may collapse if walked on).
• Lock doors, gates and discharge chutes of any grain storage units.
• Block ladders and egress points (for example a ladder guard) to limit kids’ access.
• When possible, use inspection holes and grain bin level markers rather than physically entering a grain bin.
• If you must enter the grain bin, wear a body harness with a lifeline secured to the outside of the bin. Harnesses can be purchased in the construction section of the common, commercial hardware stores for about $100 (or less).