Survive a Grain Avalanche

January 27, 2011 06:49 AM

Andy Bauer, branch manager for Heritage Cooperative, London, Ohio, regularly offers $20 to anyone who can escape from a hip-high pile of grain. Efforts by hearty FFA members and firefighters have resulted in only one payoff. That’s because it is nearly impossible to escape without help once grain inside a bin starts to shift.

Grain-bin burials typically happen when a farmer steps inside a bin "just for a second" to jab at a bridged layer of corn or beans. Without warning, the grain avalanches. If an auger is running at the base of the bin, the farmer has less than four seconds to escape the deadly trap. That is about as long as it takes to read this sentence.

In 2010, 38 farmers died in grain-bin burials. Gravity-flow wagons and semitrailers trap farmers, too.

Handle the emergency. "It is not news that people go into grain bins. What is news is that we now have a way to rescue people from grain bins," says Capt. Dave Torsell of the Urbana, Ohio, Fire Division.

Never enter a grain bin while alone. Having someone outside the bin vastly increases a victim’s chance of survival. It’s that person’s job to turn off running augers. Otherwise, grain will continue to avalanche and the victim will be buried deeper.

Wear a harness with a rope leading out of the bin. That sounds like common sense. But too many farmers just grab a grain scoop, shoot up the ladder and end up in deep trouble.

"If you are the farmer going down, relax!" Bauer advises. That advice is so counterintuitive that he admits it is rarely heeded. Flailing wildly only causes more grain to slide, burying you deeper. One solution, used by skiers and mountaineers caught in snow avalanches, is to "swim." In grain, do a backstroke. But once the grain gets chest-high, the farmer is in deep trouble. A bushel of corn weighs 56 lb. So 10 bu. is the equivalent of a quarter-ton weight pressing on the farmer’s chest. Breathing becomes difficult.

Let’s say the person outside the bin shuts off the auger. Even if the farmer stops flailing, he remains trapped. No would-be rescuer should go into the bin without backup. This only creates a second victim and likely will bury the first victim deeper.

Instead, call 9-1-1. Make sure the 9-1-1 operator knows where you’re located. That sounds simple, but confusion often reigns—especially on large farms or farms near a county line.

Next, station a person by the auger switch to assure that nobody turns it back on. People think they can empty the bin faster than the victim can suffocate. They can’t.

Rescue training. It gets worse. "Just because the fire department shows up in response doesn’t mean they are trained for this," Bauer says.

Rescues, at best, are controlled chaos. Training is key.

"Professional firefighters get absolutely no training in agriculture," Torsell says. He recommends that farmers invite local rescuers to practice on their farms.

Once the burial has stopped, the next step is to relieve the pressure on the victim, especially if the burial is deeper than waist-high. Upon reaching the farm, the department should erect a coffer dam around the victim. This can be something as simple as a couple pieces of plywood with rope handles. There also are commercial metal tubes that link together and allow rescuers to put a dam around the victim. Once placed around the victim, the grain rescue tube alleviates pressure from grain. Handles are important.

"They give the victim something to grasp onto so he doesn’t sink further and so he can help his own rescue," Bauer says.

The last, happy step in a grain-bin rescue is for the victim to help free himself. Use a coffee can or small bucket to scoop the grain out of the coffer dam.

"It is amazing how fast they scoop," Bauer says.

It is a much happier day for everyone when a call ends with a rescue and not a recovery.

U.S. Grain Entrapments

F10463 GraphIn the past 50 years, 2010 stands out with a record number of grain entrapments. Purdue University has been tracking grain entrapments for the National Grain Entrapment Database since 1964.

As of November 2010, at least 46 entrapments had occurred, surpassing the previous record of 42 in 1993. Many incidents go unreported, which means these numbers are just estimates and could actually be 20% to 30% higher.

States with the most documented cases are Illinois with 10, Minnesota with eight, and Wisconsin and Iowa, both with five.


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