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Grain bin deaths spike this fall as farmers rush late harvest

By Jessie Higgins
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Grain bin deaths spike this fall as farmers rush late harvest
A firefighter works to free a farmer trapped in corn in Burlington, Iowa, silo in May 2018. Photo courtesy of the Burlington Fire Department

EVANSVILLE, Ind., Dec. 18 (UPI) -- As farmers across the country rush to clear last year's grain from their bins, the number of grain bin deaths is spiking.

At least 15 people were killed in grain bin accidents since August, compared with 27 who died in all of 2018 and were reported in a Purdue University database.

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The most recent accident occurred Tuesday afternoon near Hartington, Neb., when farm employee Kelly Burbach, 60, became trapped in a bin. Emergency responders freed him, but he was pronounced dead "a short time later," according to the Cedar County Sheriff's Office, which responded to the call.

"There have been so many accidents that have happened since my son's death," said Michele Gran, whose teenager, Landon, died Aug. 14 in a Norseland, Minn., grain bin. "It kills me each time. It's like a dagger to the heart. These shouldn't happen."

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Landon, 18, died after becoming entangled in a sweep auger, which is a piece of metal machinery that rotates around the bin to pull the grain out, Gran said.

"We don't know the full extent of everything that happened to Landon," she said through tears. "Our thought is he slipped and fell, and we're thinking he didn't have time to get out of it."

Landon's death came just weeks after another young man died in a similar accident involving an auger in Iowa. Later that month, a Minnesota man died after he was entrapped in corn, emergency responders in his county said.

RELATED Massive, rotting soybean pile still burns after catching fire in July

Four more deaths occurred in September, followed by three in October and two in November. Most were entrapments in which someone was buried alive in grain.

Three people have died so far in December.

"We're really concerned by the number of incidents that have happened in the last month or two," said Bill Field, an extension safety specialist at Purdue University who heads a team that tracks grain bin accidents annually. He said more accidents are likely as farmers continue clearing their bins.

RELATED Rushed fall harvest could cause farmer injuries, deaths, safety experts say

A core problem, farm safety experts say, is that many farms are exempt from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration's safety regulations.

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"The statistics say 70 percent of entrapments or engulfments happen on the farm," said Jeff Adkisson, a board member on the Grain Handling Safety Council. "Farmers working alone. We encourage farmers never to work alone."

OSHA requires commercial grain storage facilities to meet federal safety requirements to operate. Small farms, with fewer than 10 employees, are not required to meet those same standards. But those small farms are storing grain in large bins that pose many of the same hazards as commercial facilities.

This is especially true for soybeans this year.

When the trade war with China began in summer 2018, China placed high retaliatory tariffs on American soy. Overnight, the nation's soybean purchases dropped from roughly 30 percent of U.S. production to almost nothing.

Prices plummeted. Farmers across the country suddenly became unable to sell their beans, so they packed them into silos, instead.

As of September, the most recent data available, stocks of soybeans on American farms was up 162 percent over last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Stored corn was up 22 percent.

Farmers would benefit from following the same standards as commercial facilities, Adkisson said.

The first rule is to never enter a bin unless it is "absolutely necessary," he said.

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It can become necessary when workers need to empty a bin, Adkisson said. Grain sometimes clumps together, which stops it from flowing out. This can happen in a number of ways. Grain can create a sort of crust, or bridge, at the top. It could stick to the wall, forming a cliff. Or it simply could form a ball.

In these instances, a person has to break up the grain.

At commercial facilities, workers are required to wear safety gear such as a harness secured to the top of the bin. No auger or other machinery can run while a person is inside the bin. And people are not allowed to work alone.

Farmers don't always take those same precautions.

"You hear stories of them just hopping in the bin and walking around to break it up," said Matt Trexel, the fire chief at Burlington Fire Department in Iowa, which responded to a grain bin entrapment last year. The man survived.

"It seems terrifying," Trexel said. "We always go in with ropes and harnesses on, securing us in. But, I guess you get away with it 99 times, and you think you'll be fine."

In Landon's case, his mother believes he was working alone in a bin for hours with the auger running.

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"I think it's crazy that people do that now that my son has died," Gran said. "But I know farmers will still do it. They have safety harnesses, but farmers won't put the harnesses on."

Gran is working with a Minnesota state senator to propose laws that would increase safety in farm grain bins.

She envisions a future in which farmers have a remote switch to turn off the auger or other machinery should they get into trouble while working alone in a bin. She would also like to see rope ladders installed in bins for farmers who aren't secured with a harness.

"We should be able to come up with a way to make it safer," said state Sen. Rich Draheim, the Minnesota Republican who is working with Gran. "It will never be 100 percent safe. It is a dangerous job."

Draheim and his team still are gathering information, he said, and he hopes to have a draft bill ready by February.

"I want to be an advocate now for my son," Gran said. "He was an awesome human who had a great future ahead of him. He would have contributed a lot to the world if he'd had the time. His death cannot be in vain."

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