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This year's record harvest could mean more grain bin accidents

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This year's record corn crop has some worrying farmers will be more vulnerable to becoming trapped in grain bins during harvest season.

"You're moving more grain, there's more chances for accidents," Dale Ekdahl, who has designed grain bin rescue tubes for Minnesota-based Outstate Data LLCtold the Star Tribune. "Believe me, it's a really, really dangerous business nowadays."

Minnesota corn production is forecast at 1.36 billion bushels – 4 percent above the 2013 production, according to the USDA. Corn production nationally is forecast at 14.4 billion bushels, up 3 percent from last year.

Despite safety advancements, dozens of people annually get trapped in grain bins, which can lead to death. Officials say many of these accidents are preventable.

A common accident involving grain bins occurs when moisture causes grain to cake or crust at the surface of the bin – this is known as bridging and is extremely dangerous, according to the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry. Bridged grain prevents grain flow and hides underlying pockets of air in the grain (pictured at right), so when a worker walks on the bridged surface or tries to break up the crusted surface, there's the risk they will fall through and become engulfed in grain.

The higher moisture content in last year's crop, which is expected to continue this year, increases the risk of corn crusting together, the Star Tribune says.

Such accidents have been on the decline since 2010, which saw a record-setting 59 grain bin accidents nationwide, including 25 deaths, according to Purdue University, which has been tracking the data for decades.

In June of this year, the number of people trapped in grain bins nationwide had already surpassed the total number of entrapments (33) in 2013, the Star Tribune says. The newspaper says there have been at least 12 grain bin entrapments in the Upper Midwest, including Minnesota, so far this year.

Here's a state-by-state breakdown of grain bin entrapments by Purdue University:

Safety regulations

To reduce the risk of grain bin entrapments, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires the use of safety harnesses and spotters when someone enters a grain bin, as well as shutting down all equipment that causes the grain to flow.

NPR and the Center for Public Integrity investigated grain bin accidents in 2013 and found that in most fatal incidents safety standards and regulations were violated – and in many cases, the workers included illegally-employed teenagers.

Purdue University notes that approximately 70 percent of all documented entrapments where the type of work site is known have happened on farms or other locations exempt from OSHA regulations. Family on-farm storage units or farms that employ 10 or fewer workers are exempt from OSHA's regulations.

Rescue tubes

Earlier this month, a man was getting buried by corn at a farm near Breckenridge, Minnesota. Firefighters in the area are trained for grain bin rescues and were able to save the man by using special grain bin rescue tubes, Valley News Live reports.

In a renewed push to train first responders these types of rescues, many fire departments in communities that are home to a lot of grain bins have access to these tubes. Training, along with advanced technology and awareness, have decreased the number of fatal grain bin entrapments, the Star Tribune says.

Rescue tubes are sold by numerous companies, including Outstate Data. Ekdahl worked with fire departments to design the tubes and also works to train first responders, KARE 11 notes.

Ekdahl's rescue tubes are made of sections of 18-inch-wide curved aluminum with ladder steps on the outside. The sections can be fastened together to make a cylinder around the victim or a half-circle if the victim is pinned against the wall. The tube is pushed down into the grain around the victim, according to Ag Week. Then, grain inside the cylinder is shoveled out, allowing for the victim to climb to the top.

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