Farm safety experts are reminding producers that grain bins are ‘confined spaces’ — a term that has regulatory and safety implications.
“Fatalities occur regularly across the Prairie provinces in agricultural settings specific to confined spaces,” said Marc Watt, a paramedic turned safety adviser at Elite Safety Training in Brandon.
Yet, he said, farms often operate in ways that would never fly in industries like construction or the oil and gas sector.
“Agriculture, regardless of if it’s a mom-and-pop operation or a family farm or has two employees, is a workplace,” said Watt.
A confined space means “an enclosed or partially enclosed space that, except for the purpose of performing work, is not primarily designed or intended for human occupancy and has a restricted means of access or egress,” according to Safe Work Manitoba.
Manitoba’s Workplace Safety and Health regulation further differentiates a “hazardous confined space” as a confined space that is, or may become, hazardous to the worker because of its design, atmosphere, the materials in the space, the work or processes done there, or other conditions.
Besides grain bins, this could include tanks, wells, trenches, manure pits and others.
In a grain bin, this could involve obvious hazards like a running auger, threat of grain entrapment or reduced air quality from dust or mould. It also includes the chance of a worker entering the space and then having a medical emergency like heat exhaustion, a heart attack or a diabetic emergency.
Because of possible hazards, provincial law requires workplaces to have safe work procedures set up for each confined space. This includes an assessment of potential hazards, procedure to isolate and disconnect power sources to the space, and personal protective equipment (PPE) to be used.
If a space is a hazardous confined space, there needs to be a plan to communicate with a standby worker, and a rescue plan.
Not that they encourage a worker to climb into a grain bin to rescue someone, said Robert Gobeil, agricultural safety and health specialist with the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association (CASA).
“One victim is too many, but we don’t want multiple victims,” he said.
However, if something happens, what will the person outside the bin do? This will likely mean calling 911, but in a remote area help may not arrive quickly, Gobeil said. Is there a lockout procedure? If someone is trapped in grain, can they be secured so they don’t sink lower?
Gobeil said that if people are trained, they’re more likely to respond with a level head and do the right thing, instead of acting on emotion.
The regulation also says that no worker can go into a hazardous confined space without a permit from their employer. This is a formalized reminder to do a hazard assessment of the area.
Watt said to think of this as a recipe or a pre-flight checklist.
“When you fly in an airplane, your pilot goes through a pre-flight inspection, a takeoff and landing checklist to make sure everything is covered,” he said.
A permit covers the location of the space, which worker will enter it, and any hazardous atmosphere monitoring or lockout required. It allows the worker to understand and consent to the work, and deals with what they’ll do if something goes wrong.
Another worker (standby worker) must be designated to stay outside the entrance of the confined space. The standby worker must have training in hazardous confined space procedures and be a qualified first-aider, according to the regulation.
Especially in remote areas, “phoning 911 or the local emergency number is not going to warrant a timely response, and the local emergency services might not have the specialized equipment that is needed,” Watt said.
Is this too much to ask for farmers — especially on small family farms?
“Finding that practical answer can be a challenge,” said Morag Marjerison, farm safety consultant with KAP. There’s a lot of historical practice of how people go into grain bins, she said.
Also, how hazardous a grain bin is differs depending on how it’s being used at that moment, she added.
CASA has safety plan and assessment checklists on its website. Watt said there are apps that can be used to complete and log hazard assessments.
There are multiple avenues for confined space training. Elite Safety Services provides confined space training specific for farms, and can tailor classes to an employers’ needs. CASA also provides training (including an online course on the topic). These courses train farmers how to set up confined space safety procedures, do hazard assessments and set up permitting systems if needed.
Safe Work Manitoba offers consulting services, said Watt. He also invited farmers to call Elite Safety Services for advice.
Gobeil acknowledged that setting up these procedures may sound daunting, but said producers need to remember there’s a cost to injury too.
“Why not follow some basic safety rules… it might slow you down briefly, but in the long run it’s a contingency plan,” he said. “It ensures that work is done in a safe manner. But also in addition to that it’s in a methodical manner, it’s predictable.”
Watt likened safety procedures to crop insurance.
“Everyone has to have the ‘what if’ in place. People buy crop insurance and hail insurance just in case it hails and there’s damage to the crop. And the same thing happens for workers. We want to prevent that incident or injury or fatality from happening.”
There’s also the matter of law — as workplaces, farms can be inspected. If a farm activity is deemed unsafe, improvement orders or stop-work orders may be issued, said Marjerison. In worst-case scenarios like injury or death, being out of compliance with the law could lead to prosecution.
Confined space resources:
Canadian Agricultural Safety Association (CASA) “BeGrainSafe” program
Manitoba Farm Safety Program
SAFE Work Manitoba
Elite Safety Services