Grain Industry Mill Workers Face Great Dangers of Injury or Death on the Job: Explosions, Suffocation are Real Risks

Grain Industry Mill Workers Face Great Dangers of Injury or Death on the Job: Explosions, Suffocation are Real Risks

One man died yesterday while working on the job at an Indiana farm co-op when a grain elevator exploded and it’s thought that James Swank died as he was loading grain from the grain elevator into cars on a train. The explosion was so strong that it was felt for miles around – many reported that their houses shook from the blast.

Right now, Indiana’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is working with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to determine the cause of this tragedy.

Last week, another mill worker died on the job when Vernon Babb fell into a grain bin and despite efforts of his co-workers as well as fire departments from two different counties, efforts proved futile and Mr. Babb died from asphyxia (suffocation) in the grain bin.

It is dangerous to work around grains and mill workers’ safety should be a paramount concern of all mills.

It may be a surprise to many people that working in a grain elevator is very dangerous work.   However, OSHA reports that there have been 500+ explosions were grain is being handled in some way since the early 1980s — more than 180 workers have died, another 675 have been serious injured in these blasts.

What’s so dangerous about grain? It’s the dust: grain dust is very volatile and even a small amount can burst into flame causing a huge explosion.  Additionally, the grain itself can literally engulf a worker, making it impossible for him or her to get enough oxygen to breathe.  In fact, it was just last week that OSHA issued a release in several states (including part of Region 5, which includes Indiana) warning of the dangers of working with grain:

Five seconds. That is how quickly a worker can become engulfed in flowing grain and be unable to get out.

Sixty seconds. That is how quickly a worker can be completely submerged in flowing grain. More than half of all grain engulfments result in death by suffocation.

In 2010, at least 26 U.S. workers were killed in grain engulfments, the highest number on record.

In the past 50 years, more than 900 cases of grain engulfment have been reported with a fatality rate of 62 percent, according to researchers at Purdue University in Indiana.

Record death and injuries in 2010, led the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration to reach out to the agricultural and grain handling industries to find ways to prevent deaths and injuries. OSHA also developed a Local Emphasis Program for Grain Handling Facilities focusing on the grain and feed industry’s six major hazards. These include engulfment, falls, auger entanglement, “struck by,” combustible dust explosions and electrocution hazards.

“OSHA is working hard to change the ‘it won’t happen to me’ mindset,” said Nick Walters, OSHA Regional Administrator for six Midwestern states. “Grain handling injuries and deaths can be prevented if employers follow proper safety procedures.”

Suffocation can occur when a worker becomes buried by grain as they walk on moving grain or attempt to clear grain built up on the inside of a bin. Moving grain acts like “quicksand” and can bury a worker in seconds. “Bridged” grain and vertical piles of stored grain can also collapse unexpectedly if a worker stands on or near it. The behavior and weight of the grain make it extremely difficult for a worker to get out of it without assistance.

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