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Grain Bin Safety
Episode 81st June 2022 • AgriSafe Talking Total Farmer Health • AgriSafe
00:00:00 00:20:34

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Script Arranged by Laura Siegel

Hosted by Carey Portell

Edited by Joel Sharpton

Special Guests: Michael Arens, Dan Neenan, Chad Johnson

Transcripts

Carey:

Welcome to the Talking Total Farmer Health podcast from AgriSafe Network. At AgriSafe, we work to protect the people that feed the world by supporting the health and safety professionals, ensuring access to preventative services for farm families and the agriculture community.

Carey:

I’m your host, Carey Portell, and today we are going to talk about grain bin safety. We have a couple guests with us, who are going to shed some insight on the dangers of grain bins, and they’ll also offer some solutions that can help prevent or lower the risk of severe injury. So, to start off, we are going to hear from Michael Arens, who has a corn and soybean grain farm in southwestern Minnesota. We first met Michael and his wife Julaine at the 2022 Agrability conference, and today, Michael is going to share how he almost lost his life in a grain bin accident.

Carey:

Okay. So being a cattle producer, I don't have any experience with row crops and I have very little knowledge of why you get in the grain bin. So can you tell our listeners the reason that you got in there in the first place?

Michael:

I had the been down to about a third of its capacity. There's a cone shaped slope to the grain. I was able to crawl in the access door and go into the bin and what I had noticed when I did and I had it the auger loading the semi, I noticed there was a chunk about a foot in diameter, rotten corn that was lodged right in the center sump of the bin. And it seemed innocent enough, but the corn had been piled up on the back side of the bin because it was a little on the moldy nature. And I thought it to be so simple just to take a scoop shovel, walk across the corn that was about, six foot deep at that point and walk across, go to the center of the bin, take the scoop and knock that chunk, break it apart so it would flow through the center sump and immediately walk out. What ended up happening is I tapped that little chunk. I was starting to walk away and this huge back pile of corn started sliding down at that point and it trapped my legs from the knee on down. But at that point, I still felt I could escape. What I didn't realize is the extreme pressure that it was putting on my legs, and I was unable to move at that point. And as more corn piled up, it forced me down to my knees. And the pressure of the suction of the center sump was right where my toes and my boots were located, and I was down to my knees at that point with more corn coming down. So I was a little bit at an angle. And when the corn finally stopped flowing, I was up to my lower part of my neck. And did not have my cell phone with me or anything. And I was. Saying my goodbyes to my family…And. I thought that was it.

Carey:

Yeah. So our listeners who who don't understand a whole lot about the inside of a grain bin, that grain bin can actually get moisture in there. And what it does is it can compact some of that corn together and it grows mold and then it just forms this big clump and it won't let the rest of the corn come through. And when. When people say they think of. Of corn and it's movable and you should just be able to pull your leg out. What really happens is, one, it's kind of like quicksand. It just keeps sucking you down and then it almost becomes like concrete, like it's immovable. It's just the pressure of it does not allow you to move at all. So can you tell our listeners how you were able to get out of that situation all by yourself?

Michael:

The immense pressure is undescribable. It was very difficult to breathe. I could see the bugs crawling in the corn. It was just a few inches below. I level just below my mouth. So there was a period of time as the corn is still flowing out of the bend in the center sump auger. The smart thing was that there is a grate that covers this sump of the center of the bin, but it's about two inches in square and the boots I had on that day would just fit. About an inch deep below this into the through the grate. And I could feel the auger flighting just touching the edge of my boots. So I thought at that point, besides dying from being suffocated my feet were also going to be amputated. And the reason I was able to escape is as the corn was continuing to flow. After about 45 minutes of that, saying my goodbyes to the world, I could start to feel that I could move one arm. And it was. Grain was flowing. So it was getting lower and lower and I could wiggle one arm out. Soon after that, I was able to wiggle another arm out and I could feel I could move my chest a little bit. And about 30 minutes of that struggle, I was able to actually remove myself from the bin and crawl out. Right then I shut the tractor off and I had a rest for a fair amount of time because I was just total in or out and. I think I might even crawled to the house about 500 feet away

Carey:

Wow. I can’t even imagine how rigorous that was. Thank you, sincerely, for sharing your experience with us. Is there any kind of advice that you'd like to give other people who are in row cropping, you know, and have that grain bin safety aspect they have to think about?

Michael:

A farmer has the sense that you're you're invincible. And I can tell you that's not true. Don't feel like it can't happen to you. Yes, it can. Also wear a mask when you go in the bin. And have a support person nearby.

Carey:

Yeah. All right, guys, you have heard it straight from Michael's mouth that, you know, you've got to take those safety measures. It's important. He's a living example. Thank goodness he is living here to tell us the story. Alright, thank you again Michael for sharing your story… We’re going to move on to our next guest, Dan Neenan, who you might remember from our episode on anhydrous ammonia. Just as a quick refresher, Dan is a firefighter and paramedic, and he is also the director for the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety in Iowa. Hi, Dan, it's nice to have you back on the Talking Total Former Health podcast. Again, we're excited to hear from you today.

Dan:

Good to be here.

Carey:

Wonderful. So right now we're going to talk about grain bin safety. That's a big thing that is going on in the springtime. So we have a few questions that we would like to ask you today since you're your expert.

Dan:

Sure. No problem.

Carey:

Wonderful. So obviously, the first thing is, why are grain bins dangerous? And then why is grain bin safety so important?

Dan:

Well, a couple of different reasons. Grain bins are considered confined spaces so they can have low oxygen levels. They can get gases such as carbon monoxide if there is a fire. And you also have the entrapment capabilities. So if the grain gets out of condition or if it has a high moisture content, it's going to mold and clump. And then as that travels down through the bin, as you're trying to empty that clump, a couple of those clumps are going to land on the sump and then you're not getting any grain out. That's what lures the farmer in and where we can have trouble

Carey:

Yes, that’s exactly what happened to our earlier guest Michael.

Dan:

So we can have crusted and bridging grains. So as they're walking across the grain, there may be a crusted hole that maybe three feet deep could be 30 feet deep. And as they step on, it can't support their weight and they go down in and everything pushes in around them. Or more commonly, folks get in with the auger running and if you get into the bin with the auger running, it can pull you to your waist in 15 seconds and completely submerge you within 30 seconds. So you have to think about that. If you're in there and you're by yourself, you know that first 15 seconds is going to go quick, that second 15 seconds is going to go quicker. So if you pull out your cell phone, you know you're not going to get a cell tower when you're inside of that metal, then if you do have an attendant, but they had things to do.

Dan:

So they're not at the top door watching and they got down and they're doing things on the ground and that ten inch auger is running and you're hollering for help at the top of your lungs. They're not going to be able to hear you because of the noise of the auger running to be able to do that. So again, you're kind of in no man's land there by yourself until you go down under the grain. Now, a couple of things to think about. If you go underneath the grain, is that an automatic death sentence? And the answer to that is no. There is breathable oxygen in that grain. However, whether it's corn, whether it's soybeans, if you plug your nose with those products, the natural process for human is to open your mouth. So if you've got product blocking your nose and then you open your mouth to breathe and you get product in your mouth, then we've got product problems. So I did get to meet a gentleman down from the state of Kansas who was trapped under six feet of soybeans for three and a half hours. And he lived because he was wearing a stocking hat because it was cold. So when the bins collapsed, the weight of the beans actually pushed his hat down over his mouth and his nose, and he was able to maintain breathing the whole time he was down underneath the grain. So I guess the first thing we want to talk about is that zero entry mentality. Do I have to get in? And if the answer is no, there are mechanical things that are coming on to the market every day to help prevent a farmer from having to get in. But if they do have to get in, there are some steps that we need to take to ensure that we're getting in safely. The first of which is to lock out and tag out the power source to the organism can't be turned on when you're inside. Second is a foreign gas detector check and make sure we have the proper amount of oxygen and none of the other gases are going to cause a problem for us. Third, we need to be wearing a harness and we need to be tied off. And the fourth, which is one of the most important and the one that's missing the most, is there needs to be a reliable attendant outside watching what's going on, not on their phone, not on Facebook, not checking market prices, watching what's going on. And if that person becomes entrapped or becomes unresponsive, it's not the attendants job to go in after them. It's the attendants job to call 911 for help and then to stay outside the bin until Fire Service gets there because most farms will have more than one storage structure on there. So we need the fire department to know which bin our victim is trapped in.

Carey:

I feel like the attendant, the other person who's outside, like their initial reaction would be to go in and save them. But they really have to think about what damage that could cause further

Dan:

If they go in and they become unresponsive, they're not helping that first person. Plus, they're going to become involved in it as well.

Carey:

Yeah, absolutely. So you know so much about getting bin safety. How did you first get involved with it?

Dan:

Well, we first started our first grain rescue trailer back in 2010. And since then the program has grown and we've become partners with Nationwide Insurance, with Grain Bin Safety Week. So Grain Bin Safety Week is always the third full week in February. And that week is dedicated to the farmers to getting the information to talk about a zero entry mentality. But if you have to get in, what's the safe way to do it? But then what I kind of like about it is we work at it in both directions. Then we take in donations from sponsors and we turn that into grain rescue tubes and trainings for rural volunteer fire departments. From the safety side, I can't tell you how many people that we've helped because of the incident didn't happen from the rescue side we've trained 32 fire departments that have gone in and rescued somebody out of a bin. So that's extremely satisfying to be able to work and know that it's making a difference.

Carey:

That’s amazing! Alright, so we are going to take a quick break, and then we will be back.

Carey:

Over the last decade, farmers and farm families have experienced increasing pressures resulting in high levels of stress, mental health, and suicide. Farmers and farm workers feel more comfortable talking to friends and family when dealing with stress, but when someone expresses despair, hopelessness, or thoughts of suicide that conversation can create fear and insecurity at a time when someone needs you the most. According to the American Farm Bureau 2022 survey, farming communities recognize that stigma remains a factor in seeking mental health care. AgriSafe is meeting the needs of communities to better respond to mental health crisis through Agricultural Community QPR. QPR Training teaches laypeople and professionals to recognize and respond to mental health crisis using the approach of Question, Persuade, and Refer. Hear a farmer’s story. Learn about the unique challenges facing farmers that lead to stress, depression, and suicide. Practice communication with agricultural examples and learn about the resources available to help those in crisis. If you are interested in training go to www.agrisafe.org/qpr. Join agrisafe in a movement to decrease stigma and instill hope in the people that feed the world.

Carey:

Now, maybe in general and through training first responders, can you tell us how we can go ahead and try to prevent the grain bin related injuries in more deaths?

Dan:

Again, I mean, in the community, take a look at what can we do to advocate for grain bin safety. We always have to take a look at the weather and last year's crop that's going to tell us if there's going to be problems. So 2010 was the worst year on record in America for grain and golf and fatalities. 2020 ran a very close second to that. But as safety folks, we knew January 1st it was going to be a bad year. And that's because the year previous harvest was late and it was put away with the high moisture content. So that kind of spells a recipe that there's going to be problems in the next year with grain quality, which means there are going to be more people entering the bin. And if more people are entering, then of course you've got more potential for entrapment. There are some products that are coming onto the market after market to help break up the grain without having to get into the bend. And folks can Google search that.

Carey:

Yes, Absolutely. Well,…Dan, thank you again for being a guest on the Talking Total Farmer Health Podcast. We really appreciate all your information and helping our audience with sharing your knowledge.

Dan:

Thanks for getting the information out.

Carey:

Alright, now that we really understand why grain bin safety is so important, and we’ve heard some initiatives to help increase the survival chances in grain bin accidents… let’s go ahead and hear from our last guest, Chad Johnson from Nebraska, who has an invention that can help prevent grain bin injuries entirely. Alright, Chad, when you’re ready, please give us a bit of your background, and how you got involved in grain bin safety.

Chad:

Sure. Well, I actually had run a nonprofit in Aurora, Nebraska. Part of those opportunities were for students to solve local problems. And my son actually got to solve a problem building a robot for another purpose. And our local farmer friends saw this robot and said, Man, if you can do that, build me one to keep me out of a grain bin. Interesting part. My son and I had never been in a grain bin before we started working on this project, so we were a little naive and said, Sure, no problem thinking that, you know, how hard can it be, you know? So, but as we've started to go through this whole process, it really has opened our eyes on how dangerous grain bins are and and the sad stories of near-misses and and accidents and deaths. Just drive us to build this tool so that it is useful enough that the farmers will take advantage of it.

Carey:

Absolutely. Now, besides your interest in technology and problem solving, what else really drove you to pursue this project full time?

Chad:

when it started, the farmer really wanted us to get the robot built so his teenage son would never have to go into a grain bin. So as we started to explore the statistics in 2020, 20 people died in grain bin accidents, entrapment and over the course of the time, statistics show that one out of every five of those grain bin deaths are teenage boys. They're often the ones that get stuck going in and doing those tasks. And you know, that just is really it's really tough for a family run company like ours to hear those stories, and it drives us to to make sure that that you know this this tool. Can can keep people out of the bins, but yet still have an impact on the grain quality and the workflows. You know, so much more to it. But it really drives home, you know, even one saved live is worth everything that we're going through. So that's our main primary mission for this, this project.

Carey:

Okay, so can you tell us a bit more about your “grain weevil” robot?

Chad:

So obviously, if we have farmers that have grain bins listening and we mentioned the word grain weevil, most of them are already kind of grumbling because the grain weevil is a is a is a pest that lives inside of the grain bin. But our robot is about twenty six pounds, 20 inches long has two augers that drive this mobile robot. And so really, it scurries across the surface of the grain like a bug. And so that's kind of how we got to play on the on the name. And so what it does is it uses those Augur's to engage the surface of the grain so it can actually move grain. It uses gravity. So we don't have to have a big, bulky, powerful machine to do all the work. So in our pitch in presentation, Benjamin always says, you know, our robot works smarter, not harder, right?

Carey:

That’s a great slogan – it sounds like this grain weevil can help eliminate a dangerous task for farmers.

Chad:

Right. So our our testing right now has demonstrated that we can do almost every task that a farmer can do with a shovel. So that is leveling grain bins, that's breaking up crusts and bridges, that's pushing grain into the sweep augers. All of that can be done so. So when people ask us, you know where we're at and we say, you know, we can, we can replace that farmer with a shovel someday soon, what will replace the farm with the broom as well, so they won't even have to go in to sweep that grain bin? So so that's our goal.

Carey:

Alright, so before we let you go, I just want to know… what type of grains is your grain weevil designed for?

Chad:

Right. So we were trying to build one robot that can do all the tasks in pretty much any granular substance. So it's not even just grains. And so we've tested on corn, soybeans, popcorn, a mixture of peas and oats that got mixed together from a cover crop. So that's a fun one. We've done wheat, milo, rice, white northern beans, pinto beans, and here hopefully soon, depending on, you know, how bad the weather gets in Nebraska. Maybe sooner we're going to go to California and do some tests on pistachios. There you go. Yeah. So I mean, it goes well beyond just, you know, the local Midwest Midwest. But but it's still all the same. It's all labor inside of these confined spaces that are extremely dangerous.

Carey:

Absolutely. This could be a game changer in the grain farming industry. And it’s not the only one. Other practices vitally important to safe grain bin entry are safety harness or lifelines, lockout/tagout procedures, and have an observer stationed outside of the grain bin to monitor anyone inside. Okay. Well, I think that’s the perfect place to end. thank you so much again, to Michael Arens, Dan Neenan and Chad Johnson for joining us today. And Thanks to our listeners for joining us for another episode of Talking Total Farmer Health. Be sure to subscribe to this podcast to hear more from AgriSafe on the health and safety issues impacting agricultural workers. To see more from AgriSafe, including webinars and our newsletter, visit w w w dot agrisafe dot org. This episode was created by AgriSafe Network. Script arranged by Laura Siegel, hosted by Carey Portell, edited by Joel Sharpton, with special guests Michael Arens, Dan Neenan, and Chad Johnson.