Trapped in a flash — the horror waiting inside a grain bin

If you’ve ever had a near miss in a grain bin — and lots of you have — this is the horrible fate you nearly suffered.

It starts when your foot sinks past the ankle and the grain reaches your lower calf. Eight or nine seconds later, the grain is up to your chest. And the only thought in your head is, ‘I’m going to die.’

“It depends on the size of the auger, but the thing you have to remember is that the average adult male occupies somewhere between 2-1/2 and three bushels of space,” said ag safety expert Glen Blahey.

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“So a little bit of math will tell you that if you have a grain auger that delivers 100 bushels a minute, it doesn’t take long to move two or three bushels of grain. And because a person is more dense than the grain, they’ll flow down into that grain more quickly.”

Blahey has experienced that part first hand after volunteering to allow himself to be sucked down into a grain entrapment demonstration unit.

When the grain reached his knees, his legs were immobilized. He not only couldn’t lift them, he couldn’t move them at all. By the time the grain was up to his chest, his weight had effectively quadrupled. But it was the suffocating weight of the grain squeezing him like a giant hand that stands out in his memory.

“I must say it’s a very, very strange feeling when you’re standing in grain up to your chest and you try to wriggle your toes, and you can’t move them because of the pressure of grain on your shoes,” said Blahey, who works for the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association.

Having talked to farmers who survived grain entrapment, he knows that ‘strange feeling’ would almost certainly have been blind panic if it hadn’t been just a simulation. So his discomfort was short lived — a lever was pulled and the 100 or so bushels of grain rapidly drained away, leaving him suspended in a body harness.

“People who have experienced that say after the panic, there’s a sense of resignation when you realize, you can’t do anything. You just have to wait and hope you get rescued.”

After every grain entrapment demo, people come up to Glen Blahey to say they couldn’t believe how fast the mannequin was engulfed by grain.
photo: Glenn Cheater

Earlier this year, Blahey took a borrowed American grain entrapment demo unit (a mobile display built on a trailer) to farm shows in Brandon and Edmonton. It was a test run for a unit that his organization is having built and will put on the road later this year.

Every demonstration drew a good crowd and pretty much everyone had the same thought as they watched a mannequin being sucked into the bin in a few blinks of the eye.

“The most frequent comment is, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize how fast it happens,’” said Blahey.

Many also talked about having close calls. And he suspects many, many others had flashbacks of their near miss and what might have been had they not instinctively stepped back at the last moment or managed to grab the hatch opening in the split second before it was too late.

Again, there’s cold, hard arithmetic at play. Something called the “injury pyramid” says for every fatality, there are many more critical injuries; for every critical injury, there are many more injuries requiring medical aid; and for every one of those injuries, there are many near misses.

Statistics on grain entrapment are patchy at best, but Blahey knows of at least nine people who died of grain entrapment in 2015, which suggests there were likely thousands of close calls.

That’s why his organization, supported by Prairie farm groups and ag businesses, is spending $175,000 on its mobile unit. And that’s just the capital expense. It will cost “that much or more” to move the unit across the country each year and staff the demos for farm audiences or training for first responders.

But there’s no question it’s worth it, said Blahey.

“A brochure is words on paper and no opportunity to ask and answer questions. A face-to-face presentation is more realistic.”

Along with the ‘there but for the grace of God’ admissions from farmers at the presentations, one response in particular stands out for Blahey. A man brought his three sons up to him before a demo and said to them sternly, ‘Now you listen to what this man has to say.’ The boys stood in the front row, watched intently, and one by one, solemnly came up to shake his hand afterwards.

“That gives me a lot of encouragement we can make a real difference,” he said.

The ones who don’t quite get it are welcome, too.

Blahey can explain, in chillingly plain language, that a rope is no substitute for a harness: “If you grab a rope and you have hundreds of thousands of bushels of grain pulling down on you, you’re going to tire very quickly and have to let go of that rope.”

Or how when a body is compressed, circulation is impeded, oxygen levels in the blood drop, and toxins build up: “There was a young man in Manitoba who was trapped in a bin for several hours. He got out but ended up in a hospital in a coma for several days because of all the toxins that had accumulated in his body.”

He has even grimmer tales of truly senseless tragedies in grain bins.

But he is also hopeful that attitudes will change when producers see a demonstration and realize that grain can be as deadly as quicksand.

“We’re so appreciative of the producer organizations in Western Canada for supporting this project,” he said. “They really stepped up and said, ‘We need to do this.’”

About the author

Editor

Glenn Cheater

Glenn Cheater is a veteran journalist who has covered agriculture for more than two decades. His mission is to showcase the ideas, passions, and stories of Alberta farmers and ranchers.

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