Caution encouraged for producers working in and around grain storage binsWritten by Natasha Wheeler
Riverton – “I don’t really believe in accidents,” commented Wyoming State Forestry Division Academy Fire Trainer Ken Metzler. “It is a chain of events that lead up to a common cause.”
Metzler spoke in Riverton at the Fremont County Farm and Ranch Days on Feb. 11 and cautioned producers to remain diligent about safety when working in and around grain storage bins.
“The biggest thing we try to teach and preach is, get a lifeline set up,” Metzler stated.
By setting up a simple harness system, producers can prevent the dangers associated with shifting grain inside of a storage bin.
“All it takes is an eye bolt to the side of the grain bin and some sort of recovery or pulley system so, if the grain collapses, the producer is a pendulum on the rope. It’s a simple rig, and, in all fairness, it’s a cheap rig,” he explained.
Not to be confused with liquid, grain is a fluid material, meaning that it shifts and moves within its container.
“If someone breaks through a crust or a top, the fluid load is going to flow just like quick sand,” he explained.
The pressure from the grain makes it nearly impossible to swim against or to break free from, and it causes a crushing effect on the body.
“Once grain has someone, all they can do is duck, cover and hold to try to get an airspace,” he said.
“Every time a person inhales and every time they exhale, the grain flows against them, so now they can’t inhale as much,” Metzler noted, describing how pressure builds up against someone’s chest, causing suffocation.
At a training exercise, a team submerged one firefighter waist-deep in grain to simulate a disaster event. When they asked him to pull himself out, he didn’t have the strength.
“This was a big, tough guy,” commented Metzler. “He said he could feel his knees start to separate. That’s how much suction there was.”
It would take about 400 pounds of pressure to break someone loose from that situation with a rope tied around them – enough pressure to dislocate their spine, pelvis or legs.
“To rescue someone, we build retaining walls to get a cone built around them to keep that pressure off. Then we can start shoveling that grain away,” he said.
Retaining walls can be made from plywood, tin, snow fencing or whatever other materials are accessible at the scene to stop the flow of grain against the body of the person.
“I work from behind the victim so I am at least keeping pressure off of the torso and chest,” he stated.
Getting rescuers to the scene is typically the biggest challenge in grain-bin disasters.
“Call us immediately. If a producer tries a self-rescue, they have probably wasted 15 minutes that we would be on the road for travel time,” he explained.
The other thing to do immediately is to shut off any moving parts.
“Lock it out and tag it out. Shut things down. If I arrive there on a farm, I don’t know what lever runs the auger, fan, lights, etc.,” he continued.
If it is possible to create ventilation or airflow, it will help to increase the window of opportunity for rescue.
“When we arrive, we will use safety lines and respiratory protection. We will also monitor the air in the bin, as well, because we don’t know what we are going into, and it’s a confined space,” he stated.
Process of rescue
If a person can not be reached from a top access point, rescuers will resort to cutting holes in the bin, which must be done with care and proper technique.
“We want either a ‘U’ or ‘V’ shaped hole about five feet high,” he noted.
The ‘U’ or ‘V’ shape is cut upside down so the loose piece of siding can be pushed back up to stop further flow of grain.
“I want to cut the holes about five feet high because I am going to have a load of grain flowing out of there,” he added.
It will also be necessary to cut a second hole on the opposite side of the bin, and possibly additional holes at equal distances around the container.
“If I just cut one, I am going to exert all of that pressure on that one side of the bin, and the bin could collapse,” he commented.
Rescuers also need to remember that grain is typically stored at about 40 degrees.
“That person that is in there is going to be hypothermic. The rescuer might be up there roasting, but the victim is freezing,” Metzler explained.
Rescuers try to get oxygen to the victim and place heat packs around the hoses so warm air will flow into their lungs until they can be freed and taken to a hospital for further care.
“Never give up,” stated Metzler, referencing a man who survived more than two hours, trapped in a bin.
“I believe two things save people’s lives. Those are diesel and oxygen,” he said. “Get a high flow of oxygen to the victim and put the right foot on the floor to get them to a hospital where someone can take care of them.”