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Unpacking the dangers around bin entrapment

Forays to the inside of a grain bin can quickly turn tragic

In 2015, seven people died in grain bin entrapment accidents. That was a spike over an average year, accounting for a significant number of the deaths reported in the decade before. According to the Canadian Agricultural Injury Reporting program, 30 people died from grain or silage asphyxiation between 2006 and 2015.

It had always been a safety issue for grain farmers, but that spike in 2015 prompted the agricultural sector to take notice. Industry and government began working together to prevent similar accidents, spearheaded by awareness and education efforts. In 2017, the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association (CASA) launched BeGrainSafe, meant to provide prevention, emergency and rescue training, as well as general prevention.

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Time constraints make it tempting to just jump in the bin, but safety experts warn producers to pump the brakes on that impulse and take some safety precautions.

Rob Gobeil, CASA agricultural safety and health specialist, was the star of a video presented at the Ag in Motion Discovery Plus virtual farm show in July. The video features the BeGrainSafe mobile training unit, now a fixture at farm shows every year.

“It’s really important to raise awareness about this type of hazard because if a person was to get entrapped in grain, the odds of them self-rescuing is minimal,” warned Gobeil, “and there is a very high fatality rate associated with grain entrapment.”

The mobile unit is “the heart of our BeGrainSafe program,” he added, highlighting not only the danger of grain bin entrapment to the farmer, but to the rescuers as well.

That risk highlights CASA’s call for proper rescue training and techniques. Gobeil estimates that two-thirds of those injured in grain entrapment fatalities are actually rescuers.

“Grain entrapment has its own set of hazards that your standard firefighter does not have the skill set to perform,” he said. “So it’s very important for the first responder to have the proper grain rescue training.”

Since 2017, the mobile unit has travelled across the country providing training to potential rescuers and education to producers, including an entrapment simulator with a life-size mannequin.

“It really is a graphic demonstration,” Gobeil said.

“The comment I get most often is that people cannot believe how quickly the mannequin or trainees sink in flowing grain,” he added, drawing parallels with quicksand. “You only have a few seconds to react. Once you’re past your knees, you’re stuck. You cannot self-rescue.”

It is also a demonstration that often hits uncomfortably close to home. The CASA specialist pointed to people he has spoken to at farm shows that have either lost a family member or, at the least, have had a close call.

At the same time, Gobeil said, there are precautions that can be taken to decrease the chance of being in that situation. Grain in good condition often decreases the need to enter a bin, he said, noting the crusting and flow issues inherent in out-of-condition grain.

To compound the issue, these problems often become apparent only when the time crunch is on, tempting a producer to jump in the bin to try to clear the clog. If a producer must go in, Gobeil said, it’s important to remember that a grain bin is an enclosed space and that there are specific procedures required by law, while a spotter on the outside of the bin is also important.

It’s a point also raised by Marc Watt, safety adviser with Elite Safety Training in Brandon, when compared with similarly confined spaces in the construction or energy industries.

“Agriculture, regardless of if it’s a mom-and-pop operation or a family farm or has two employees, is a workplace,” he said in an August interview with the Manitoba Co-operator.

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.

“You want to have emergency procedures,” Gobeil said. “Make sure that spotter knows how to shut down the system and you want to get help on the way as soon as possible. That’s your standard 911 call or a direct call to your emergency hotline if you’re outside of a 911 area.”

— With files from Geralyn Wichers

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