Every fall, thousands of farms begin the process of harvesting millions of tons of corn, wheat, oats, barley, soybeans and other agricultural products. It’s an annual tradition that has been the backbone of the US agricultural industry since the country began.
But working with grain has its risks and every year agricultural workers are injured or killed in accidents at grain elevators, feed mills, flour mills, dust pelletizing plants, and other grain handling facilities.
Grain Industry Hazards
Hazards include fires and explosion from built-up grain dust, suffocation from workers being engulfed or trapped in grain bins, falls from heights, and crushing injuries from falling or collapsing grain handling equipment.
Already this year, at least six agricultural workers have been injured or killed in grain-related accidents. One of the most recent occurred Sept. 19, when a 28-year-old employee of the Ellsworth Co-Op, in Ellsworth, Kansas, stepped into an open auger well inside a grain bin while the auger was running, according to federal investigators. The worker lost his left leg.
A similar accident occurred Sept. 1, when a 59-year-old man suffered severe leg injuries when his overalls became caught in a sweep auger inside a bin at Trotter Grain, in Litchfield, Nebraska.
Moving Equipment Risks
Augers aren’t the only dangerous equipment in grain handling facilities. Conveyors also are a risk. Workers can easily get fingers, hands, arms or legs caught in moving mechanical equipment, especially if moving parts are not properly covered.
Storage facilities such as silos can also be dangerous. Spoiling grain can cause gasses to form. Or fumigants commonly used for insect control can leak. Either of these can cause workers to be overcome and fall into the grain, where they can become engulfed and suffocate.
Protecting Agricultural Workers
But there are steps agricultural businesses can take to help protect workers.
When workers enter storage bins, they need to make sure that powered equipment such as augers used to move grain is turned off. It’s dangerous to stand on moving grain, which can act like “quicksand”, burying workers in just seconds.
Workers also should walk on grain to help it flow. Walking down grain and similar practices are extremely hazardous.
Employees entering a grain bin should be provided with a lifeline, or a boatswain chair, that harnesses their body so they can be pulled out safely should they become engulfed by grain.
There also should be a spotter standing outside the bin. Two-person teams allow one person to provide assistance to the person going into the grain bin.
Harvest time comes every year. So it’s a good idea to review grain handling safety procedures prior to every harvest so that all workers are kept safe.