Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

September 30, 2013

Ready to rescue

Firefighters train to respond to emergency involving grain bins

By Scott Smith Kokomo Tribune
Kokomo Tribune

---- — Shin-deep in corn, a group of firefighters were sweating Wednesday, struggling to set up a rescue tube around one of their “trapped” colleagues.

It wasn’t easy, even standing on dry corn in the back of an open-roofed semi-trailer on a back lot at Kokomo Grain.

“Guys were out here yesterday in that same spot, so the corn is probably compacted there,” offered Purdue University Farm Accident Rescue Instructor Steve Wettschurack. “Try moving to another spot.”

There was training in using a Saws-all to cut through corrugated bin material and classroom instruction, but the one thing the firefighters couldn’t do Wednesday was recreate a real situation with someone trapped and sinking in moldy, crusted corn inside a dark silo with time quickly running out.

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

In July, a farm worker was killed in Fountain County after becoming stuck in grain. Rescuers tried to save him but were unable to get him out in time.

It’s a terrible death, and according to Purdue University research, about 62 percent of workers who become stuck in grain end up dying. Overall, workplace deaths have been declining for years, but not grain bin deaths.

“It’s mainly just complacency that does it,” said Wettschurack, who taught a three-day training course last week for the Kokomo Fire Department and four area volunteer departments.“It’s guys who say, ‘I’ve done this a thousand times; it will be fine.’”

Grain can form crusts and stick to the sides of grain bins, and sometimes it’s necessary to manually break up the grain to get it to properly flow down an unloading auger.

Workers can get careless and enter a silo while the auger is still running and get sucked down with the corn, Wettschurack said.

“It’s like being in the sand in an hourglass. Once you’re in that flow of corn, you can’t get out,” he said.

Grain bin rescue can be immensely difficult. The only real viable technique is to fit a series of panels together to create a tube around the victim, and then to use a shop vacuum to suck out all of the corn in the tube. The process can take hours.

Once grain is up to someone’s waist, they can’t get out. And even experienced farmers can be surprised by how quickly grain can shift. Last year, an 80-year-old Johnson County farmer died in one of his own bins.

KFD Battalion Chief Chris Linville said the city’s annexation made it imperative for the department to train for grain bin rescues. The Kokomo department has never had a grain bin rescue, he said, but that could change with Kokomo Grain and farms coming into the city.

Indiana Farm Bureau sponsored the class, paying Purdue to put on the seminar for local firefighters, Wettschurack and Linville said.

Realizing the seriousness of the problem has led to a general rethinking of how the U.S. Department of Labor and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration address grain bin deaths.

A proposed 2012 re-write of farm safety rules met strong opposition in Congress from legislators from farm states, who called it an overreach. The proposed rules, which would have banned anyone under 18 from working in a grain silo, were dropped.

Wettschurack said improved Labor Department safety guidelines should completely prevent grain bin deaths, if followed.

“Farmers will tell you different, but I have yet to hear a compelling reason why they leave the unloading auger on when they go into a bin,” he said.

The guidelines state that all power equipment, particularly loaders and augers, should be off before anyone enters a silo. Workers shouldn’t enter a silo without a safety harness and an observer on hand and workers shouldn’t try to dislodge grain caked above head level. The guidelines also suggest testing for the presence of combustible or toxic gases.

Jim Rossman, Kokomo Grain’s safety director, said the company was happy to host the training.

“Kokomo is our first responder, so we wanted to make sure we did what we could to help them find their way around out here, and we wanted to be responsible for our customers, if they ever have an issue in a grain bin,” Rossman said.

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