“The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” – William Gibson

I previously wrote about the two grain bin accidents in Nebraska. That blog discussed the deaths, the hazards involved in those deaths, and what should have been happening before grain bin entry that could have kept the two victims in the Nebraska incidents alive.  It is possible that the workers involved were unaware of the hazards of grain bin entry or that they didn’t appreciate the severity of the hazards in their work environment. Whatever the case may have been, they did not survive.

What if people didn’t have to work inside of grain bins?

Initiating cause is a term used in the process safety industry to describe the action that marks the transition from a normal situation to an abnormal situation (a normal situation made abnormal by the introduction of a hazard).  In the Nebraska accidents, the initiating cause was entry into grain bins. Those entries used procedures that were inadequate to protect the workers’ safety. From afar, we can speculate that the official procedures were inadequate, that the official procedures were adequate but the actual procedures were inadequate, or that the workers didn’t follow normal procedures, official or otherwise.  Regardless, these initiating causes are classified as opportunity-based. Every grain bin entry made by workers provides the opportunity for the initiating cause of a catastrophic event to occur.

The Zero Bin Entry Mindset

The number of deaths in the grain industry can be reduced significantly by removing the opportunity for human error. In other words, prohibiting human entry into grain bins. Iowa OSHA has addressed this issue by issuing a “zero-bin entry” policy for the state. At this time, the “zero-bin entry” policy is not enforced as Iowa OSHA has not made this change in its version of the grain handling facility standard.

Farmers’ and the grain handlers’ reaction to this policy becoming mandatory understandably includes some frustration. There will inevitably be grain bin upsets that prompt bin entry. However, inconvenient as it may be, the best solution to reducing the number of incidents inside grain bins is to give workers no motive to enter, except in cases where entry is necessary for operating and no other solution is available. Thankfully, there are alternatives to worker entry.

Zero Bin Entry Equipment

For those who are willing to look toward a different approach to handling grain, there is equipment to reduce the amount of human involvement in grain bin entries. In addition to the potential safety benefits, the use of this equipment may even reduce operating costs or increase revenue.

  • Remote controlled sweep augers

No one deserves the fate of a worker who has been caught unaware and dragged into an auger. Remotely controlled sweep augers take away the dangers of being struck, caught in, or pinned with a sweep auger during operation, as the operator remains on the outside of the grain bin. These sweep augers can run automatically by sensing the grain load and moving the auger so that it does not overload. Whether the auger is in manual or automatic mode, the auger is designed to operate without bin entry. This removes the risk of contact with machinery while inside grain bins.

  • Grain bin monitors

There is no set rule as to how long or at what time of day aeration should be running. Monitoring grain and applying the proper aeration and cooling is key to preventing spoilage. Both monitoring grain and dealing with spoiled grain now typically require that workers make an entry into a grain bin. Grain bin monitors provide the ability to know what is happening inside the bin without entry. This allows for proper aeration to prevent grain spoilage, while reducing the risk to personnel. The moisture and temperature cables, weather station, and plenum sensor all work together to provide valuable knowledge on the moisture and temperature of the grain and air. The master controller is able to apply the necessary heating or cooling automatically. The wireless controller transmits this information so that it is accessible on nearly any device with internet access.

  • Remote controlled skid loader

A problem with grain bin entry is ‘engulfment while emptying a grain bin’. There is an unmanned skid loader that is a direct solution to this problem. The unmanned skid loaders typically have Class II Div I Group G rating, a dust proof heavy-duty metal body, and dimensions suitable for operating in any grain bin. They can push, pull, or lift the sweeper to knock down a wall of grain. Some of these skid loaders have the ability to attach a camera and lights, so workers wouldn’t even need to look inside the bin while operating the skid loader.

Zero Bin Entry Procedures

Unfortunately, not everyone who handles grain has the resources for automatic or remote equipment. Equipment isn’t the only way to improve safety when it comes to grain bin entry. Each entry exposes workers to all the hazards present inside the grain bin. Decreasing the number of entries reduces the number of opportunities for an incident to occur. Here are just a few of the things that will reduce the amount of grain bin entry if purchasing equipment is not a viable solution.

  • Grain Conditioning

Grain aeration is important to maintain, as it equalizes the moisture and temperature of the bin with the outside air.

Cooler than ambient bin temperatures will cause condensation to form on the walls inside the bin. However, having grain warmer than the ambient temperature will result in underroof condensation. A grain bin roof that is not maintained could have cracks that introduce leaks during rain or snow events. All three of these scenarios result in wet grain. If grain is stored while wet the temperature could rise, the grain could clump, or the grain could become contaminated with insects or mold. Storing grain at a temperature warmer than 70 degrees may also allow for an insect infestation. If the grain harvest was contaminated by trash in the field there is possibility for insect issues or a blockage in the grain storage systems.

A lower quality of grain created from these poor conditions may clog or plug grain handling equipment, requiring the need for the maintenance and potentially bin entry.

  • Perform procedures from outside of the bin

Anytime a worker is faced with a need to enter a bin, first think about how the task can be done without requiring entry. For grain conditions creating clumps or crusts, a worker can probe the clumped grain with a pole. As issues arise in the grain handling system, solutions to develop more and more procedures to tackle the issue from outside the bin may be just within reach.

  • Proper signage and restriction

All grain bins should have signage and locks to prevent unauthorized persons from accessing the bin. Signage should include a statement of the hazards of grain bin entry and the requirement that only trained workers following procedures safely may enter.

Strive for Zero Bin Entry

While “zero bin entry” isn’t mandatory, it certainly is a good idea. There are many ways to reduce or eliminate the need for bin entry.  Before anyone you work with makes their next entry into a grain bin, please take a moment to think if there is a way to do the work without requiring entry.

I mentioned a few ways to reduce the need for grain bin entry. If you have other ideas or procedures that your facility has in use that promotes safety, please share them in the comments. Spreading the knowledge is essential to reducing the risk of grain bin entry in our industry and inspiring innovation from all of us to make our industry safer.