A 9-year-old boy died in a grain bin last week in southwestern Wisconsin. While every situation is different, agricultural engineers continue to work on new ways to prevent such deaths. Those involved in the training industry say reaching the younger generation will be an important step to prevent entrapments.
Mark Baker with Stateline Farm Rescue says there have been improvements in rescue products, including interlocking aluminum panels that surround a victim so the grain can be bailed out around them. He says emergency workers don't always need to spend a lot of money to have the right tools.
"Some of the bells and whistles and stuff that you think is really needed," Baker said, "sometimes it's the simplicity that really does the job the quickest and most efficient."
For example, plastic beverage crates can act like snowshoes for rescue workers to walk above the corn without sinking.
Baker used such crates in a recent grain bin rescue demonstration in Freeport, Ill., for a group of farmers.
He brings a smaller-scale grain bin to training events to illustrate the dangers of entrapments. His bin is about the width of a hot tub, but much deeper. It holds up to 200 bushels of grain.
Colin Ebbers, 19, of Dakota, Ill., volunteered to be the victim in the hands-on exercise. He's fit but, within seconds, Ebbers goes from standing tall to trapped up to his armpits in yellow kernels.
Four people surrounded him with metal panels to prevent more corn from covering him. Then helmets were used to bail the corn out. When Ebbers came out of the bin, his legs were deeply dimpled.
"I always thought, 'Why can't people swim out of corn or just try to find their way out?'," Ebbers said. "It was really mind-blowing to think how much pressure, or how wrong I was over it."
Keeping Track of Accidents
Researchers at Purdue University keep track of grain bin entrapments and accidents. In recent years, they expanded the search for incidents to include asphyxiation, entanglement, falls, and electrocutions in and around confined spaces on farms.
Still, farmers keep going into the bins to break up grain -- which may be clogged due to mold.
Rockton Farmer Learns Lesson the Hard Way
Roger Bates, 78, of Rockton, Ill., was trapped for several hours on his family farm earlier this year. Emergency crews tried a variety of techniques to free him. Ultimately, interlocking aluminum panels did the trick. The product they used in that rescue, called "Great Wall of Rescue," is manufactured in Lanark, Ill., not far from the site of a deadly grain bin accident in 2010 which killed two young workers.
Bates wasn't wearing a harness, but his grandson Michael Bates, 20, was standing watch. Michael hurried down the outside of the bin to turn off power and stop the corn from moving, but the corn was already up to his grandfather's neck.
"Many people asked me why I was in the bin and not Michael," Roger Bates said, "but my theory had always been on the farm, if I'm going to do something dangerous, I'm going to be the first one to try to make it right."
That attitude isn't out of step with many aging farmers, who are used to being independent. Roger Bates says the younger generation is becoming more safety conscious. His grandson agrees.
"I like to think things through a little bit more rather than just try it and see what happens," Michael Bates said.
Roger's wife, Judy, says it never got easier to see him venture into the bin.
"Each kernel is like a living cell. You have to aerate that and work with it," she said. "You just can't put it in the bin and leave it. I don't know what's going on inside that bin, and that's why I'm kind of emotional."
Roger says he knew of the risks when he went in without a harness.
"I did put everybody in jeopardy," he acknowledged. "I always think if anybody calls the fire department -- even for a medical deal -- as they go to the emergency and come back, they are always in harm's way."
Bates recently donated rescue equipment to his local fire department, since the one involved in his rescue was located 30 miles away.
Prevention Efforts Continue
Rescue efforts get a lot of attention because they are so dynamic. But, when the dust settles, prevention evangelists are born.
Catherine Rylatt keeps preaching the word. She founded the Grain Handling Safety Coalition. She's also the aunt of Alex Pacas, who died in a grain bin in Mt. Carroll, Ill., in 2010.
"As the technology has grown, your work practices have to change to go along with it," Rylatt said.
Rylatt says bins are getting larger and corn is becoming softer.
She admits prevention isn't a "sexy" topic, but says it remains tempting for farmers to keep corn as long as possible, creating more opportunities for it to go bad. She says her group will pilot youth courses this year.
"Obviously, we are training everybody, but I think it's going to be easier for the younger people to universally accept and universally adopt and make these best practices a part of their daily work practices." - Catherine Rylatt, Illinois Grain Handling Safety Coalition
That includes wearing a lifeline, just like wearing a seat belt in a car. There's also "lock-out, tag out" where a worker puts a lock on the electrical source at the base of the bin to alert others that someone is working on the bin.
Changes in Manufacturing
Farmers and rescue workers may also benefit from universal construction standards among grain bins. Bob Aherin, of the The University of Illinois, has been working with the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers to draft standards for manufacturing new bins, including similar anchor points to attach lifelines.
Committee members did not reach consensus on the proposals earlier this year, but Aherin says tweaks continue and officials say another vote is possible next year. Even if new standards are approved, it will take years -- if not decades -- to phase out existing structures on farms across the U.S.
"The manufacturers have certain issues that they are trying to minimize cost as much as possible, but yet provide what they feel is adequate safety features on grain bins," Aherin said.
Another idea is to require standardized warning labels on grain bins and confined spaces. After witnessing her husband's harrowing rescue, Roger Bates's wife Judy thinks that's a good idea.
"I even thought of making my own bones and skull on the grain bin before they head up that grain. Just to make them think more than they do," Judy Bates said.