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Schmidt: Extra caution necessary when unloading grain this year

By Staff | Feb 21, 2014

By now most have heard about the young North Dakota farmer who lost his life in a tragic grain bin accident early last week. While this young farmer was not actually inside the bin when the accident occurred, it serves as a startling reminder to use extra caution when unloading stored grain this spring.

A lot of wetter-than-normal corn went into storage this year, and wet corn is more prone to crusting or creating a wall of grain near the grain bin wall. This increases the potential for bin unloading problems and getting trapped by the grain.

People can become trapped in three ways: flowing grain, the collapse of a vertical wall of grain and the collapse of bridged grain.

Bridging is a potential problem with wet stored grain. A lot of wetter-than-normal corn went into storage this year and is prone to bridging. Bridging occurs when the kernels stick together and form a crust. A cavity will form under the crust when grain is removed from the bin. However, the crust isn’t strong enough to support a person’s weight.

Bridging also transfers more of the load to the bin wall, which may lead to bin failure as the bin is unloaded.

Ken Hellevang, North Dakota State University Extension Service Engineer offers these tips to help keep farmers and elevator personnel safe:

Never enter a bin while unloading grain or to break up a grain bridge. A wall of grain can collapse without warning and cover a person. Flowing grain will pull a person into the grain mass, burying the individual in a few seconds.

To determine if the grain is bridged, look for a funnel shape on the surface of the grain mass after some grain has been removed. If the grain surface appears undisturbed, the grain has bridged and a cavity has formed under the surface.

To break bridged grain loose, stay outside the bin and use a pole or other object to break the bridge. Tie the pole or other object to a rope attached to the bin so you can retrieve the pole or other object if you drop it.

To dislodge grain that has formed a wall or other large mass, try to break it up from the top of the bin with a long pole on a rope or through the bin door with a long pole. Do not remove more of the wall in the door than is necessary to insert the pole because the grain may crash into the wall or flow out the door.

Do not allow anyone to work around stored grain until he or she has been warned about the hazards.

Never enter a grain bin without stopping the auger and using the “lock-out/tag-out” procedures to secure it. Use a key-type padlock to lock the auger switch in the “off” position.

Never enter a grain bin alone. Have at least two people at the bin to assist in case of problems. Use a safety harness or line when entering a bin.

Here is what to do if someone gets trapped:

Shut off all grain-moving machinery to stop the flow of grain.

Contact your local emergency rescue service or fire department.

Ventilate the bin

using the fan

Form retaining walls around the person with plywood, sheet metal or other material to keep grain from flowing toward the person, then remove grain from around the individual.

Don’t try to pull a person out if engulfed in grain if it is up to the person’s waist or higher. The grain exerts tremendous pressure on the body, so trying to pull a person out could damage his or her spinal column.

Cut holes in the bin sides to remove grain if the person is submerged. Use a cutting torch, metal-cutting power saw or air chisel to cut at least two V- or U-shaped holes on opposite sides or more holes equally spaced around the bin. Grain flowing from just one hole may injure the trapped person and cause the bin to collapse.

For more information, check out NDSU publication AE-1102, “Caught in the Grain.” It’s available online at ag.ndsu.edu/publications/landing-pages/crops/caught-in-the-grain-ae-1102.

If the grain flow stops when you’re removing it from the bin, but the grain surface has a funnel shape and shows some evidence that the grain has been flowing into the auger, a chunk of crusted grain has likely become lodged over the center sump and is blocking the flow. There has been some success in breaking-up the chunk using a rotor-rooter type device. Remove the take-out auger. Run a heavy cable inside a pipe with an elbow at the end. Attach cable clamps on the end of the cable that will be in the center of the bin. Slide the pipe with the cable through the take-out tube to the center of the bin. Use a large drill to turn the cable while pushing it into the chunk of grain above the center sump.

If the grain is “frozen” together and does not flow from the bin, there has been some success by warming the grain to just above freezing using a heater and the aeration fan. Do not allow the heat from the heater to flow directly onto the fan motor or fan bearings because the fan motor relies on cool air flowing over the motor to keep it cool and the heat may damage the bearings. Warm air as it heats the corn will pick up moisture from the corn which will condense on cooler corn in the bin and increase the moisture content of the cooler corn. Operate the aeration fan long enough to remove this moisture as the corn is warmed and remove the corn soon after warming the corn.

Bin vents may frost or ice over if fans are operated when the outdoor air temperature is near or below freezing, which may damage the bin roof. Open the fill or access cover during fan operation to serve as a pressure relief valve.

Another potential safety hazard is ice accumulation on fans. This can lead to imbalance and vibration. Fans have disintegrated because of ice buildup. Hellevang recommends producers monitor fans for ice accumulation and remove the ice if it builds up.

Grain kernels may stick together, forming a crust or bridge. A hollow may develop under the crust when grain is removed from the bin. The bridge can collapse under a person’s weight, burying the person in seconds.

After some grain has been removed, some of the rest may remain stuck together in a large pile or wall. Breaking it loose can be very risky.

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