By UNMC, Central States Center for Agricultural Safety and Health, Omaha, NE

“There is a direct correlation between out-of-condition grain and an increased likelihood of worker exposure to entrapment situations,” according to Purdue University’s 2020 Summary of U.S. Agricultural Confined Space-Related Injuries and Fatalities. “Whenever a farmer or elevator employee has to ‘fight’ to get the grain to flow out of (a bin), there is a strong temptation to by-pass safe work practices be entering the structure in order to keep the grain flowing.”

Identifying grain handling safety principles is one of the aims of Central States Center for Agricultural Safety and Health (CS-CASH). This University of Nebraska Medical Center group ( is conducting two research projects (funded by National Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health) that are designed to make a positive impact on the sustainability of cattle feedyards through increased safety and health efforts.

Sometimes, a crusted layer forms on the surface of grain inside a bin or within the grain mass. That leads to a void above the outlets as grain is removed from the bin. If the crusted grain breaks up during the removal process, it may block the bin outlets, reducing or stopping the flow. In other situations, vertically crusted grain can cling to the walls of the bin or form free-standing piles. The piles may contain tons of grain, which can collapse without warning.

“If the grain won’t flow, it’s already too late to debate what was or was not done to prepare the grain for safe storage,” the summary reads. “The issue at hand is to remove the grain without putting anyone at risk of entrapment.”

The summary notes that, ‘although the following steps may not be the most profitable,’ they will help keep everyone safe when handling grain.

1.    Never enter a bin where there is evidence of crusting on the surface or within the grain mass. If grain has been removed from the structure and the surface has not flowed toward the outlet – stay out. This is a clear sign that a large void has formed over the outlet.

2.    If there is any sign that the grain is going out-of-condition, or has already done so, it needs to be moved immediately. The condition of the grain will not improve if left in storage, and will only worsen as warm weather arrives, which causes biological and insect activity to increase.

3.    Perform all observations or unplugging efforts from outside the bin, at the top access hatch. Again, if there is evidence of crusting, spoilage, or excessive heating – stay out. The risk is too great. In some cases, long pipes, rebar, or other probes can be inserted into the grain mass to break up crusted grain or trash that is plugging the outlet. Watch out for overhead power lines when handling these long probes.

4.    If the grain has become so crusted, or the floor outlets become plugged, preventing grain removal according to the bin manufacturer’s recommendations, contact a professional grain salvage service that has the experience and equipment to break up and remove out-of-condition grain. These services are expensive but can save lives and salvage some of the grain. In some regions there is a market for damaged grain which helps make the salvage operation a little less costly.

At the end of 2020, the Purdue Agricultural Confined Space Incident Database (PACSID) contained information on 1,731 cases (1962-2020) involving confined spaces, grain storage and handling facilities at both commercial and on-farm locations. All the cases resulted in an injury, fatality, or required emergency extrication by first responders. Of these cases, 1,731 (72%) involved grain storage and handling facilities, and grain transport vehicles.

“There is no claim that the data presented accounts for all incidents involving agricultural and confined spaces,” the summary states. This is due, among other things, to the fact that there is no accurate accumulative public record of these types of incidents, and no comprehensive or mandatory incident/injury reporting system for most of agriculture. “There has been reluctance on the part of some victims and employers to report ‘near misses’ or non-fatal confined space-related incidents, especially those occurring at farms, feedlots, and seed processing operations not covered by federal OSHA injury reporting requirements.”

In 2020, there were a total of 64 cases of agricultural-confined space-related cases, including:

·   35 grain entrapments

·   7 falls into or from grain storage structures

·   4 asphyxiations due to deficient oxygen levels or toxic environments

·   12 equipment entanglements (such as those involving in-floor and sweep augers) that occurred while working inside or around agricultural confined spaces

The total of 64 represented a 4.5% decrease from the number of cases documented in 2019, when 67 were recorded. However, the number of 2020 total confined space-related cases was well above the 5-year average (61.2 cases/year) and above the 10-year average (60.9 cases/year).

“Regardless, the frequency of documented cases remains a concern considering the substantial resources being invested in solving the problem,” the summary states.

In 2020, the state with the most documented grain entrapments (fatal and non-fatal), was Illinois, with 10 cases total. North Dakota reported 5, Minnesota reported 4, and Indiana and South Dakota each reported 3.

With the support from a Susan Harwood Grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, was developed to provide resources for those conducting safety and health training in the area of agricultural confined spaces, with an emphasis on grain storage and handling hazards. Training material, frequently asked questions, past summaries of injuries and fatalities, and an extensive list of resources can be found at the site.

Additional information on grain handling safety can be found at:

Funding for this educational article comes from the Central States Center for Agricultural Safety and Health and the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

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