The phrase “grain elevator” commonly refers to a silo and the moving parts it requires to move and store grain. In a broader context, “grain elevator” means the entire facility surrounding one or more such silos.

But however you define a grain elevator, you must always remain aware that working in and around one demands the utmost care. OSHA details many safety hazards associated with working in grain handling facilities. Familiarizing yourself with all of them and how to avoid accidents and injuries is crucial for anyone who would work around or within a grain elevator.

That said, here are four grain elevator hazards which you should always keep at the forefront of your mind. Your and your team members’ safety demand no less!

Grain Elevator Explosions

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there were 503 grain elevator explosions from 1976 until 2011. These explosions injured 677 people and killed over one quarter as many.

Grain elevator explosions are caused by dust, which becomes highly combustible when it is suspended in the air. A single source of ignition will effectively transform any enclosed space which contains oxygen and a sufficient number of airborne particulates into a bomb.

The deadliest grain dust explosion in modern history occurred at the Continental Grain Elevator in Westwego, Louisiana on December 22nd, 1977. Cold weather produced sufficient static electricity to create the ignition that would claim the lives of 36 people and topple a 25-story grain elevator onto a nearby office building. It took ten days to recover all the bodies.

Unspeakable tragedies like these are avoidable. If you manage a grain elevator, it is crucial that you undertake the following safety protocol wherever they are applicable:

  • Implement measures that will effectively minimize the accumulation of airborne grain dust
  • Install and maintain ventilation systems or suitable alternatives at any point where grain is transferred
  • Regularly clean any area in which grain dust is known to accumulate
  • Routinely lubricate moving parts’ ball bearings in accordance with their manufacturers’ specifications, and monitor those bearings’ temperatures
  • Apply food-grade mineral spray to grain before it enters transit
  • Install and maintain belt-rub sensors within the casings of bucket elevator legs, and replace elevator legs’ steel cups with plastic alternatives
  • Utilize antistatic belting material in legs and belt conveyors
  • Frequently inspect for faulty wiring and other potential sources of ignition
  • Train workers on safe work practices, and forbid them from smoking in or around grain storage sites

Grain Entrapment

According to a study conducted by Purdue University, at least 64 injuries and fatalities occurred within confined agricultural spaces during 2020 alone. The majority of these were grain entrapments, where the victims were completely or partially submerged in grain until they could receive assistance.

According to the Great Plains Center for Agricultural Health, it takes only four seconds for grain entrapment to occur. Complete burial may take place in a mere 20 seconds. The majority of people who are completely engulfed by grain will perish, as the force required to remove them can easily exceed 2,000 ft lbs – force which would require the approximate combined strength of ten average men.

Needless to say, dying from being buried alive is horrifying. It is also completely preventable so long as grain elevator staff adhere to a “zero entry” principle: total elimination of any reason to enter a grain storage facility, which can be achieved via modern grain storage practices. Using a pole to knock grain clumps loose – or avoiding grain spoilage altogether – can easily eliminate any need to risk death or severe injury by entering the bin.

Federal regulation currently forbids the aptly named practice of “walking down the grain.” If you observe a worker walking down the grain under any circumstances, take every precaution to ensure they stop immediately and never do so again. Note that family farms are for the most part exempt from federal labor regulations, although strictly adhering to them is strongly advised nonetheless!

Fall Injuries

Explosions and grain entrapment are the two most commonly discussed types of grain elevator hazards. But all industrial complexes, regardless of their application, present a heightened risk of injury from falling.

According to the National Safety Council, 880 workers died from the injuries they sustained after falling in 2019 alone. Nearly one quarter million more were injured so badly that they required time off work.

Sadly, all of those accidents were completely preventable. If you work in agriculture or any other industry where elevation plays a role, make certain to do all the following in order to minimize your workers’ risk of fall injuries:

  • Utilize appropriate safety equipment at all times, and ensure that everyone is trained in its use
  • Regularly seek out and remove potential tripping hazards
  • Exclusively set up ladders and other equipment on level ground, and ensure that all folding ladders on-site are equipped with functional locking mechanisms
  • Enforce safe ladder use, including keeping three limbs planted on the ladder at all times, securing longer ladders to an upper support structure, never standing higher than the third rung from the top, and permanently retiring any ladders which evince signs of damage
  • Do not permit work in inclement weather
  • Require workers to wear slip-resistant shoes

Poorly Maintained Facilities

Malfunctioning grain elevators and roofs both present a heightened risk of injury, and also threaten the integrity of any product which passes through an agricultural facility. If you would like to promote a safer environment for your workers while simultaneously safeguarding your business’s bottom line, then NIJAC is standing by to help.

We provide grain elevator repair, metal roof and concrete silo roof restoration, and a variety of other services which are indispensable to agricultural concerns throughout the contiguous United States. We welcome you to contact us today for an inspection and estimate!