It can happen to you.
Five seconds. That is how quickly a worker can become engulfed in flowing grain and be unable to get out.
Sixty seconds. That is how quickly a worker can be completely submerged in flowing grain. More than half of all grain engulfments result in death by suffocation.
With the agricultural season still in full swing, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is predicting a record-breaking corn crop in 2013. In the heartland, that is great news for the farming industry − but it also underlines the unique hazards facing workers in the grain handling industry, especially in the storage of grain.
The Grain and Feed Association of Illinois uses a dummy inside a training grain bin at the Asmark Institute, in Bloomington, Ill., to demonstrate to farmers how quickly someone can be completely engulfed in grain. It is also used by rescuers to practice lifesaving extraction techniques.
In mid-July a 55-year old worker died after becoming engulfed in grain at a bin in Sidney, Ill. Earlier, this year deaths and injuries have occurred on farms in Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota when workers have become engulfed in grain storage bins or suffered injuries in other grain handling incidents.
This is not new: In the past 50 years, more than 900 cases of grain engulfment have been reported with a fatality rate of 62 percent, according to researchers at Purdue University in Indiana. And in 2010, at least 26 U.S. workers were killed in grain engulfments − the highest number on record.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration responded immediately to the dramatic increase in the incidence of grain entrapments with an initiative that included enforcement, outreach, compliance assistance and education. Warning letters were sent to more than 13,000 grain elevator companies to comply with OSHA’s common-sense standards. A targeted Local Emphasis Program for Grain Handling Facilities was then launched in 12 states that focuses on the grain and feed industry’s six major hazards: engulfment, falls, auger entanglement, “struck by,” combustible dust explosions and electrocution hazards.
We also published a hazard alert, updated our Web information on grain handling and developed and distributed a Grain Bin Entry wallet card for workers − especially young workers. And today, OSHA awarded Susan Harwood Training and Education grants to Perdue University and the University of Illinois to conduct education and outreach to grain elevator owners and workers on preventing entrapments. This summer, we launched and continue to wage grain bin safety campaigns in several states to help spread the word among employers and workers.
Following these efforts, there has been a decrease in the number of entrapments. If we – OSHA, industry and the community – don’t maintain our vigilance, however, the death rate will rise. So far this year OSHA has investigated four deaths from grain engulfment, with other investigations pending. Additional deaths have occurred on family farms, where OSHA does not have jurisdiction.
Workers from teens to senior citizens have been injured or killed by these hazards. I believe all of them could have been prevented had the employer ensured OSHA standards were followed. You can never assume that it is safe to enter a storage bin, and so following important precautions that must be met before worker entry can mean the difference between life and death.
This week, from Sept. 15-21, OSHA is supporting the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety’s National Farm Safety & Health Week and its focus on protecting agriculture workers. Observed annually since 1944, the theme this year is “Working Together for Safety in Agriculture.” Agriculture recorded the highest fatality rates of any industry, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, at 21.2 per 100,000 full-time workers in 2012. OSHA’s updated agriculture Web page is filled with resources, including resources to reach the more than half of farmworkers who are Hispanic.
We will continue to work with organizations such as grain handling associations, local farm bureaus and educators and trainers in the agri-business community to get the word out about grain handling safety.
Workers’ injuries and deaths don’t just hurt workers, co-workers and their families; they impact their communities and leave everyone wondering what more can be done to prevent such tragic incidents. By complying with basic, common-sense safety standards, we move closer to preventing the next tragedy and statistic. In the span of seconds, we can also save a life.
Tom Bielema is OSHA's area director Peoria, Ill.