UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A $160,000 grant awarded to Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences will support research aimed at reducing the potential for injury and death due to grain bin entrapment.
The Northeast Center for Occupational Health and Safety in Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing has green-lighted funding for the three-year project, which will focus on improving mechanisms for safe grain bin entry systems, anchors and apparatus based on new recommendations. The project also will assess operators' use of safety guidelines and practices.
"A moving five-year average of 29 grain bin entrapments occur every year in the U.S., and approximately half result in a fatality," said principal investigator Michael Pate, Nationwide Insurance Associate Professor of Agricultural Safety and Health in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering. "This is a serious issue for our farming communities."
He explained that an increase in growers' interest in storing grain — for economic and efficiency purposes — has increased the risk of incidents involving grain bins and silos. While there are several hazards associated with grain handling systems, such as respiratory issues, fires and noise levels, the most life threatening is entrapment or engulfment during loading, transportation or unloading of grain.
Once buried in grain up to the knees, it becomes difficult for a person to get free without assistance from others. If the grain is still flowing, it can engulf a person within seconds, leading to suffocation or asphyxiation.
"What's scary is how fast this can happen," Pate said. "For example, for a 6-foot tall worker, it would take less than five seconds for grain to reach that worker's knees. In 20 seconds, that person would be completely submerged."
Operators also will be updated on voluntary design recommendations recently released by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers for new steel grain-storage bins. The developing committee, which comprised the society's structural engineering technical committee and the Grain Elevator and Processing Society, included academic researchers, safety experts and end-users.
With recommendations for bin access, anchor attachment points and safety decals, the standards provide enhanced protection for those who must enter grain bins. This guidance also will help them to accomplish their task with higher awareness and understanding of the hazards surrounding them and of the safety steps that should be used.
Pate's study will use a simulation design tool to test various scenarios, looking at grain bin design, access, anchor-point systems, and harness and safety apparatus use, among other factors, with the goal of retrofitting older, on-farm grain bins to enhance safety. He plans to survey operators on their interest in making upgrades and to learn what concerns and barriers they might face in improving grain bin entry systems.
Another area of study will involve focus groups, workshops and on-site visits to assess workers' knowledge and use of safety standards, and other related industry topics. Identified information gaps will be addressed through further education.
"As more farmers engage in on-farm storage to take advantage of market prices, Penn State Extension will continue to be there to provide them with the expertise and resources they need to be successful," Pate said. "Our No. 1 priority in all of that is to ensure that safety comes first."
More resources related to farm safety — including articles, workshops, online education and publications — are available on the Penn State Extension website at https://extension.psu.edu/business-and-operations/farm-safety.