Simple Strategies Can Prevent Grain Bin Tragedies

A series on worker deaths in grain bins continues with a trip inside a grain bin — stepping into thousands of bushels of corn — to demonstrate the power of corn and the safe grain bin entry methods that are required by law.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We continue our series now on a dangerous and illegal practice that kills, on average, 16 people in the U.S. each year. It's called Walking Down the Grain. Employers at farms and grain elevators send untrained and ill-equipped workers into bins to break up wet or clustered grain. In the last four decades, more than 660 people have died because of the quicksand effect of grain.

But preventing these deaths is relatively simple, as NPR's Howard Berkes reports from inside a massive grain bin in Homestead, Iowa.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: So we're in an 80,000 bushel corn bin here at Amana Farms. We're hooked in with lifelines. We've got a spotter up here with a radio. And there's a downward slope in the center. And the dangerous thing is going towards that downward slope. And especially if machinery was running and the corn was flowing, it would basically suck you in.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

BERKES: Our spotter was Amana Farms safety director Rich Gassman, who peered down through a manhole from his perch on the roof of the bin.

RICH GASSMAN: If you get into the grain much past your knees, you won't be able to move anymore.

BERKES: It just sort of locks up around you?

GASSMAN: Yeah.

BERKES: No, I can feel that as I step around.

I actually sank a little deeper into the kernels with each step, just up to my knees, but my body harness was hooked to a tether and it would have held tight like a seatbelt if I slid or sank further. The harness and lifeline are required by federal law. So is the spotter and the training I had before I climbed the five-story ladder strapped to the outside of the bin.

We also put locks on power switches so no one could activate a screw-like auger on the bottom of the bin. It pulls corn down and it could pull us down, too. We put tags on the locks, which signaled we were inside, all that's required by law.

GASSMAN: Entrapments don't need to happen. We can - by following this fairly simple safety protocols, I think a lot of lives can be saved.

BERKES: The condition of the grain is also a factor. Three years ago, a record corn crop was harvested all across the Midwest. It was wet and it clogged up in bins. Workers were sent in to walk down the grain, or unclog it, which is also against the law. Twenty-six people died, a record year for grain entrapment. This corn is in great condition. It's really dry. It's no clumping at all on the sides or in the center.

If this was wet corn, it would be harder to get out.

AUSTIN CLOVE: Right. Or it wouldn't blow as easy. Wet stuff, it wouldn't be good because you'd have to be in here.

BERKES: That's Austin Clubb the operations manager here. Out on the catwalk attached to the roof, Gassman says the safety practices are supported at Amana Farms.

GASSMAN: It is somewhat time consuming, but our management team, our board of directors, everybody really is behind this 100 percent.

BERKES: Gassman says it's hard to estimate the cost of compliance. The grain industry, federal regulators and grain bin experts say the same thing because the ages, sizes and numbers of grain bins vary so much. They day before I climbed into the Amana bin and just up the road, I heard concern that safety may suffer this year if a Midwest drought continues.

Jeff Adkisson of the Grain and Feed Association of Illinois spoke at a farm safety conference in Cedar Rapids.

JEFF ADKISSON: We have elevators who are laying people off. We have elevators who are cutting hours. We have elevators who are cutting out, you know, going to conferences or traveling, or things of that nature. So because they're trying to cut costs, I'm concerned that that could be in an area, in these safety areas, where they may try to cut costs.

BERKES: Back at Amana Farms at the base of the grain bin, noisy fans dry the corn inside. Amana is a massive operation with 25,000 acres. It's a corporate farm now, but has a religious and communal legacy so it may not be typical. Rich Gassman says the commitment to doing it right stems from the risk, given hundreds of suffocation deaths in grain. None occurred here, but Gassman is haunted by an accident outside a grain bin in which the worker survived.

GASSMAN: The cost of traumatic injury, even for a farm our size, would almost be unrecoverable. I've had to make that phone call before, to tell a spouse that we were transporting their husband to the hospital by med-plane. It was a very traumatic experience that I do not want to live through it again.

BERKES: Amana Farms is one of 13,000 commercial grain operations. Three hundred thousand family farms also have grain bins, but they're mostly exempt from the federal regulations that require doing it right. Howard Berkes, NPR News.

CORNISH: Howard concludes our look at grain bin deaths tomorrow on MORNING EDITION with a story about the difficult efforts required to rescue workers trapped in grain. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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