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It’s time for a change: Stop grain drownings

By Robert (Bob) Marlow, Operations Professional Services, Walton, Ind.

I lost a friend recently. Rescuers found his body in a grain storage tank, along with a coworker covered in grains. They died of asphyxiation.

Out of respect for the families, coworkers and others involved, I’m not going to go into specifics. If something doesn’t change, it will happen again.

I’ve lost too many friends in my career. Statistics show on average, 18 to 20 deaths occur each year due to engulfment in grains, and over 80% are due to grain that has spoiled. OSHA tracks these incidents, but not all farms and elevators are regulated by OSHA. If all incidents were included, experts suggest the numbers would be significantly higher.

How and why does this happen?

Corn is the grain most closely associated with, and tied to engulfment deaths, both on farms and in commercial storage operations. Corn is the single largest crop produced in the U.S. The USDA projects that nearly 14 billion bushels will be harvested this fall.

Grains not properly preserved can go out of condition quickly. “Out of condition grains” is the key in these incidents. Later, when attempting to move the grains from the structure, these spoiled grains plug off the drain point. The effect is similar to your toilet. It backs up, and someone has to “unplug” the drain. Today’s answer is to send humans in to perform this task. This puts them in unpredictable and potentially deadly work conditions. In spite of the best planning, they can easily become trapped, surrounded in minutes, by dust-choking, mold-infected grains, resulting in a “drowning.” Many result in death. Most all of these are preventable. OSHA will, as usual, write their report. But nothing changes.

The industry can stop the majority of such incidents, but there must be change, not business as usual.

I suggest the following starting points:

1: Safety: Regulations must be tightened and extended across the industry.

2: Technologies: Robotics, quality monitoring, standardization, best practices and more.

3: USDA grain grade standards: Standards today are skewed for ease of merchandising. Incentives should be for quality.

4: Marketing: Remove the incentive to store “out of condition” grains.

5: Farm policy: Current policy encourages over production.

6: Training: Continue current efforts.

I have attended too many funerals. It is not acceptable to wait until Jan. 1 to reset the death counter to zero, hoping the next 12 months will be better. Hope is not a strategy; Action is.

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