Grain Bins: A Complex Response Requiring a Complex Solution

By John K. Murphy

According to the United States Department of Labor, the National Safety Council, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, agriculture is the most hazardous industry in the nation. Farmers are at very high risk for fatal and nonfatal injuries. Farming is one of the few industries in which farmers’ families (who often share the work and live on the premises) are also at risk for fatal and nonfatal injuries. During the last 15 years, 8,088 farmers and farm workers died from work-related injuries in the United States.

Matt Rose: Grain Bin Rescue

The leading cause of death for these workers was tractor overturns, accounting for an average of 96 deaths annually. Other causes of death are grain silo entrapments, toxic gases in manure pits, chemical and pesticide poisonings, livestock incidents, and power auger or power take-off entanglements.

Since agricultural rescues in grain bins are complex operations, so should the solutions by the use of innovation, hazard recognition, specialized training, and certain tools available in most municipalities and at our disposal. There are two great articles and one podcast addressing these problems on One is entitled “Construction Concerns: Grain Storage Facilities” by Gregory Havel, who states: “Since the interior of these facilities is not designed for human occupancy; has restricted means of entry and egress; contains materials that can engulf anyone who enters, and may contain oxygen-deficient atmospheres or explosive dust, these facilities are considered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to be ‘permit-required confined spaces’ under 29 CFR 1910.146.” These are confined space events and because of the bulk of the grain involved that requires removal to extract the victim, the use of vacuum trucks is recommended in the initial stages after securing the victim.

The second article, written by Steve White, “Vacuum Trucks Key to Successful Trench Rescue,” indicates that the use of vacuum trucks “should be considered a standard operating procedure for (trench) rescue operations, even without access to the rescue vacuum system, because the open-butt vacuum hoses can still be used to remove vast amounts of soil much faster than by hand in most cases, and they can also be used to remove water in case of rain or a pipe failure. In fact, the Los Angeles County (CA) Fire Department typically requests three hydrovac trucks (one for primary operation, one set up to continue vacuuming when the first vacuum fills with dirt and must be unloaded, and the third in case of mechanical breakdown of either of the other two).”  Vacuum trucks can remove a vast amount of grain as well and with some innovation (to narrow the large-diameter vacuum hose) can be equally successful in grain bin rescues.

The use of vacuum truck resources coupled with the understanding of the construction of grain storage facilities was put together in the podcast entitled “Grain Bin Rescue,” narrated by Chief John Sinclair from Ellensburg, Washington, first broadcast in September 2010.

Combining these three Fire Engineering resources, articles and podcast narrations by experienced firefighters and chiefs, we can obtain an innovative safety margin for our firefighters challenged with an agricultural confined space rescue or other agricultural events.

I invite you to read

And listen to

Use these resources to gain a full understanding of the problem of grain bin confined space rescues and solutions to a highly hazardous situation. 

JOHN K. MURPHY, JD, MS, PA-C, EFO, retired as a deputy fire chief after 32 years of career service; is a practicing attorney and is a frequent speaker on legal and medical issues at local, state, and national fire service conferences. He is a frequent contributing author to Fire Engineering.


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