Don't climb into a bin, pit or silo unprepared - or at all

How long does it take for someone to become helplessly trapped in flowing grain?

How much physical force is needed to pull someone buried below the surface of grain?

A person can suffocate in grain in which of the following ways: the chest is constricted and breathing is difficult, grain fills lungs and air passages, there's a lack of breathable air around a person, or all of the above?

It's not the end of the world if you flunk this short Iowa State University exam. (The answers: It takes less than six seconds to become trapped in grain, more than 1,000 lbs of force are needed to get free from it and a person can suffocate in all of the horrible ways mentioned above.)

The real test, says John Shutske, farm safety and health specialist at the University of Minnesota, is how farmers act in real-life, stressful situations.

Let's say it's 9 p.m. and you're tired. You've got part of a bin to unload, but the auger's clogged. Would you climb into that bin? Better think twice.

"It's not necessarily a lack of awareness in farmers," says Shutske. "It's usually the heat of the moment. Farmers, often faced with critical time pressures, must weigh the cost of safety against the value of doing something quickly. People think they're immortal or can hold their breath. Or that gas or toxicity levels aren't going to be high enough to affect them. The consequences can be just tragic."

"With confined spaces," adds Becky Brown, a safety specialist with Gempler's, "you're not talking about injuries; you're talking fatalities."

Grain bins, manure pits and silos are the usual confined spaces farmers need to be wary of.

Brown, whose company sells safety equipment for working in confined spaces, recommends that farmers avoid those spaces when possible. See if critical devices, such as pumps, switches and controls that need monitoring, adjustment or frequent repair, can be put outside. Or contract the work to be done by professionals with proper safety equipment and training.

But if you can't avoid going into an enclosed space, have a safety plan in place.

* Before entering the space, monitor it for gases or oxygen deficiencies. If there are high gas levels, low oxygen levels or toxic conditions, ventilate the space.

* "Have somebody outside the space monitoring the person in it," Brown suggests.

* "Know how you're going to rescue that person and have a quick plan so you can get that person out if you need to," she says.

* Shut down all equipment within the confined space so no one can turn it on while you're in it.

* Have the right type of breathing equipment. A dust mask won't work. Full-face respirators just filter what air is around a person and won't work with poisonous gases or a lack of oxygen. But a self-contained breathing apparatus provides fresh air and complies with Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards.

"We found that the real cost of compliance can be out of the range of most family farmers," says Shutske. "Because of that, whenever it's possible, people need to stay out of confined spaces."

The cost of the breathing apparatus is about $1,500, with another $1,500 for monitoring equipment, adds Brown. She recommends that farmers share the cost of the equipment with neighbors who also need it.

"I've heard some farmers say: 'Well, I've done it this way for 20 years and nothing has ever happened.'

"How do you know that the next time won't be your last?" she asks.