Swine & U: Think safety first through 2023 harvest season, By Emily Krekelberg from the University of Minnesota

Who doesn’t enjoy October’s sights and sounds?  We marvel at harvest colors and the flurry of accomplishment across the countryside.   A recent evening drive across southeastern Minnesota was colorful and warm, with a slight haze of soybean dust in the air as multiple combines worked in all the fields lining Highway 14.

Already farm incident reports have come through, too.  Families are shaken by accidents, close calls and, even worse, tragedies.  Farm safety is always on our mind, but when all our producers are out working long days at the same time, the urgency and worry are compounded.

We recently recognized National Farm Safety and Health Week with the theme “No One Can Take Your Place.”  As Extension Educator for Farm Safety and Health, I provide year-round farm safety education. During harvest season, I’d like to offer these reminders for farmers and their families.

Equipment and rural roadway safety

Tractors and large field equipment are often involved in farm accidents, injuries, and deaths. This equipment is a necessary part of farm work; but exercising caution when using them is crucial in preventing accidents.  Spring, summer, and fall are busy times on the farm, and seeing equipment out on the road is common. Whether you’re operating the equipment or sharing the road with it, safety is paramount.

Before operating farm equipment, understand how to do so safely. Read the operations manual and pay attention to any safety or warning decals on the equipment.  Before operation, inspect the equipment for any safety hazards.  During inspection, also identify all safety hazards including moving parts, pinch points, crush points, pull-in areas, and free-wheeling areas.  Be sure anyone who is going to be using the equipment is aware of these areas as well.

While using the equipment, keep bystanders — especially children — away from the equipment operation area. Before approaching equipment for an inspection or repair, shut it down, turn off the engine, remove the key, and wait for all moving parts to stop.  This is the only time you should be removing any safety devices — such as shields — from the equipment.  When any work you were doing is completed, safety devices should be put back on.

An important part of equipment safety is responsible use of public roadways. Use lights and flashers to ensure visibility and have a slow-moving emblem on your tractor and equipment. It is Minnesota law for all vehicles traveling under 30 miles per hour on public roadways. You may also consider using a follow vehicle when moving large pieces of equipment — especially at night.  Proper safety precautions on the roads keep not only you, but the other people using the road, safe.

Farm equipment is a dangerous part of farming, but following safety guidelines, keeping others away from the operating area, and using public roads in a safe manner will keep us all out of harm’s way.

Priority populations

The farm is a great place to raise kids, but it’s also dangerous. About one-third of all farm accidents involve children, and a child dies in an agricultural accident approximately every three days. Prevent your child from becoming a statistic. Make sure they understand on-farm hazards, only give them age-appropriate tasks, and make sure they are supervised.

Many of the everyday hazards on the farm are not always recognized. According to the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Safety and Health, 60 percent of ag-related injuries to children occur to a child who is not actively working on the farm but may be watching or playing nearby. Talk to children about what makes certain areas of the farm dangerous and ask them what they think they can do to keep themselves safe. Important areas to cover include machinery, livestock, grain bins and silos, and chemicals.

Children tend to be very eager helpers on the farm. Although they may want to help with everything, consider the age appropriateness of certain tasks. Think about age, development, and body size when considering which tasks to assign. A great resource for determining age appropriateness is the Agricultural Youth Work Guidelines from the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety. They can be found at cultivatesafety.org/work.

Lastly, supervision is critical to keeping kids safe on the farm — whether they are working or not. Again, nearly 60 percent of child injuries on farms happen to children who are not working but are simply “in the vicinity.” Keeping a watchful eye on any kids around the farm is crucial in ensuring their safety. Prevent your child from becoming a statistic.

Confined spaces

On average, nearly two dozen people are killed each year in the United States in grain entrapment incidents. Flowing grain is dangerous and behaves much like quicksand.  In 4 seconds, a full-grown adult can sink knee deep from the suction of flowing grain. In just 20 seconds, they can be completely buried. The pressure of the grain usually hinders self-escape and can even make assisted escape near impossible. A person buried to the waist in grain requires a force equivalent to their own body weight plus 600 pounds to free them. The force required to remove a person buried under grain can exceed 2,000 pounds. Let’s look at some grain handling scenarios which are incredibly dangerous and could result in an accident or even death.

The first is flowing grain. Around 80 percent of reported engulfments involve a person inside a bin when grain unloading equipment is running. Engulfments in flowing grain can also occur in outdoor storage piles, grain wagons, rail cars, and semi-trailers that unload from the bottom. As grain is unloaded through the bottom outlet, a funnel-shaped flow develops on the surface of the grain. Anyone standing on the surface while grain is being removed from below is at risk of being rapidly pulled down toward the outlet with the flowing grain. Submersion takes only seconds and once it begins, the pressure and friction forces of grain on the body are virtually impossible to overcome. If grain unloading equipment is not shut off, victims can be pulled down into the unloading conveyor, auger or sump.

Another dangerous scenario is bridged grain. Spoiled grain clumps together and can develop a crust on the top surface. This crust appears solid, but it is unstable and may hide open voids below which develop as grain is removed. Bridged grain can collapse under a person’s weight, resulting in the victim being buried by falling and shifting grain. If unloading equipment is running at the time this occurs, the victim can be rapidly pulled down toward the bottom of the bin.

An additional risk is a vertical grain wall avalanche. Spoiled grain can form a clumped mass that adheres to the vertical wall of a bin.  Entering a bin to dislodge a vertical wall of grain that is higher than the victim is dangerous because the grain wall can suddenly break loose and fall like an avalanche — burying or injuring the victim.

There is also a high risk when using grain vacuums to remove grain from bins. When the grain vacuum nozzle is placed below the grain surface, a funnel flow of grain develops. An operator can be pulled into the downward flow of grain if this nozzle is released or becomes buried below the grain surface near the operator’s feet.  Maneuvering the vacuum tube can be awkward, increasing the operator’s risk of slipping or losing balance as he or she tries to reposition the hose in flowing grain.  If the operator falls or struggles for position, his or her movements can trigger an avalanche of grain if the slope of grain is steep.

Fortunately, there are some safety precautions to take to prevent grain-related incidents.

First, manage grain to prevent spoilage. The most common reason people enter bins is to address problems associated with spoiled grain. To reduce the chance of grain spoilage, maintain aeration equipment in working order and check the structure to identify and fix roof leaks.  Also, store grain at the correct moisture content and temperature to prevent conditions favorable for grain to spoil.

Second, work from outside the bin. If clumps or crusts develop in the grain, use a pole from outside the bin to probe or knock the clump free.  Restrict access to bins, storage structures, and outdoor grain storage piles.  Post signage and lock access doors so unauthorized persons, bystanders, and youth cannot enter.  Also, post signage at all entry points to bins, outdoor storage piles, and other storage structures that warn of potential for engulfment and require any entry to be done by trained workers following safe procedures.

Third, create a safe environment for you and anyone working on your farm.  Provide training to all employees on the dangers of grain handling and what the safety precautions are.  Have an emergency rescue plan in place and make sure all employees know what it is and what they need to do if it is put into action.  Shut down and lock out all grain handling equipment and turn off all power sources when not in use.

Fourth, if you absolutely must enter a bin or other grain storage area, take proper safety precautions. Always visually inspect the grain bin or storage area before entering it. Never enter alone. Have at least one other person in a safe position watching you and there to help in case something goes wrong.  Also, use fall restraint equipment and make sure it is properly anchored. These systems consist of a full body harness attached to an anchored line, which limits the distance the entrant can drop or fall. Most importantly, don’t allow someone who has not been trained to enter a bin with you or with anyone else.

Grain entrapment is a huge risk on farms, and accidents almost always end in tragedy.  Remember that life can change in the blink of an eye, so keep yourself and your family safe by reviewing the dangers of the farm and how to avoid them.

Emily Krekelberg is the University of Minnesota Extension Educator for Farm Safety and Health, based in Rochester, Minn. She can be reached at krek0033@umn.edu.