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During the week of June 6, 2011, three workers, one each in Iowa, Michigan and North Dakota, were killed when they were engulfed (buried or trapped) by grain while on the job. In Texas, a fourth worker was also buried in grain, but was rescued and survived. Suffocation from engulfment is a leading cause of death in grain bins, and the number of these deaths continues to rise. In fact, the number of deaths more than doubled between 2006 and 2010. These fatalities are preventable if employers follow work practices and provide training and equipment as required by OSHA’s Grain Handling Facilities standard, 29 CFR 1910.272.
A center grain unloading auger draws grain from the top center and the grain forms a cone as the bin is emptied.
Illustration: John A. Kramer, Safety Measures in Handling Stored Grain, Kansas State University, February 1989.
How are workers suffocated or engulfed in grain bins?
Suffocation can occur when a worker enters a bin and is engulfed by grain or when bins develop hazardous atmospheres or do not have enough oxygen. A worker can be engulfed or suffocated if the worker enters the bin and:
These hazards are present in all grain handling facilities, regardless of size or number of workers. For detailed information about how workers become trapped by flowing grain, see the University of Arkansas publication entitled Suffocation Hazards in Grain Bins [323 KB PDF, 8 pages].
Who is at risk?
Although most workers at grain handling facilities are at risk of being trapped or buried by grain, young workers are particularly vulnerable and are often victims. Under federal law, workers under the age of 16 are prohibited from entering confined spaces or environments, including grain storage structures. In 2010, there were six documented cases of grain entrapments that involved workers who were under the age of 16. Five of these incidents resulted in death.2 The number of incidents involving young workers, and the fact that they are often fatal, illustrates the importance of making sure that young workers are informed about the hazards of grain handling.
Incidents in grain bins often result in multiple deaths because other workers attempt to rescue their coworkers and become trapped or overcome as well. Pulling out a worker who is trapped in a grain bin requires a great deal of force, much more than is needed to rescue someone from under water. Water has "buoyancy," which "floats" ships and helps lifeguards rescue victims much larger than themselves. Grain does not have these properties and resists the force a rescuer uses when trying to remove a buried worker. Rescue systems should therefore be designed and built to overcome this resistance. A rescuer’s strength alone is not likely to be enough to rescue a trapped worker.
OSHA requirements: How can employers reduce hazards and protect workers entering grain storage bins?
Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers are responsible for providing safe and healthful workplaces for their employees.
OSHA’s Grain Handling Facilities standard sets requirements that employers must follow to protect and train workers exposed to the hazards of grain handling facilities. The standard establishes common-sense safety practices and specific controls that can prevent worker injuries and deaths, and identifies specific controls for engulfment hazards that are covered below. OSHA’s standard also covers controls for other common issues at these facilities, including: dust accumulation and explosions, hazardous atmospheres, confined space entry, and emergencies.
States that operate their own occupational safety and health programs approved by Federal OSHA enforce similar standards but may have different or additional requirements. A list of State plans is available.
Entering grain storage bins is EXTREMELY DANGEROUS. To reduce the risk of engulfment and suffocation, do not allow workers to enter a grain storage bin unless it is absolutely necessary. If a worker must enter a grain storage bin, these simple hazard control measures must be implemented.
Following these measures can SAVE WORKERS’ LIVES:
What has OSHA done to address the hazards?
In 2010, OSHA conducted nearly 300 grain handling inspections of various grain operations, an increase of more than 100 such inspections since 2008. This increase was a direct result of the Local Emphasis Programs that OSHA has implemented in several regions to focus on significant hazards associated with grain handling.
OSHA found that employer negligence, noncompliance with OSHA standards, and/or poor safety and health practices are significant factors in causing grain engulfments. About three-fourths of the nearly 300 worksites inspected were in violation of OSHA standards, and nearly 20 of the inspections resulted in willful or repeat citations. Violations covered hazards associated with grain engulfment, machine guarding, lockout/tagout of dangerous equipment to prevent accidental energization start-up, electricity, falls, employee training and combustible dust hazards.
As a result of the increased number of inspections, OSHA imposed substantial multi-million dollar fines on several employers for preventable grain handling fatalities and injuries. For example, in 20114 OSHA fined Haasbach LLC in Mount Carroll and Hillsdale Elevator Co. in Geneseo and Annawan, Illinois following the deaths of three workers, including two teenagers. The employers were cited for failing to lockout/tagout dangerous equipment prior to bin entry, entering grain bins under bridging (engulfment) conditions, and failing to post an observer outside the bin during an entry. The workers were killed when the grain engulfed and suffocated them. The fines to both companies total $1,352,125.
Additionally, OSHA has:
OSHA Area Offices conduct local outreach efforts, including outreach to high school and college students, and outreach to small cooperative grain handling operations. OSHA Area Offices also coordinate with State Plan states on their enforcement and hazard prevention efforts.
How can OSHA help employers?
OSHA provides free, On-site Consultation for small businesses with fewer than 250 workers at a site (and no more than 500 employees nationwide). This program provides free on-site compliance assistance to help employers identify and correct job hazards as well as improve injury and illness prevention programs. On-site consultation services are separate from enforcement and do not result in penalties or citations. To locate the OSHA Consultation Office nearest you, visit OSHA’s website or call 1-800-321-OSHA (6742).
OSHA also has Compliance Assistance Specialists throughout the nation who can provide general information about OSHA standards and compliance assistance resources. Contact your local OSHA office for more information by calling 1-800-321-OSHA (6742) or visit OSHA’s website.
What rights do workers have?
Workers have the right to:
For questions or to get information or advice, to reach OSHA consultation, to report an emergency, a fatality or catastrophe, to order products or to file a complaint, contact your nearest OSHA office, visit www.osha.gov or call OSHA at 1-800-321-OSHA (6742), TTY 1-877-889-5627.
Updated: October 19, 2011
1The University of Arkansas publication entitled "Suffocation Hazards in Grain Bins [323 KB PDF, 8 pages]" was released in 2010.
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