“We get so hung up on all the other details, trying to get the work done… that we lose track of what’s really important and take these stupid chances.”
– Todd Botterill
No one will ever know exactly what was going through Bob Botterill’s mind when he decided to enter that grain bin while loading oats on his farm near Newton Manitoba February 21.
The decision cost the well-liked and experienced farmer his life.
His body was found at the bottom of the bin later that evening after a neighbour, who’d spotted his truck and other farm equipment running near the bins – but no sign of Bob – feared the worst and alerted police. A ladder was sticking out at the top of the bin. Police and emergency personnel called to the farm emptied the bin and found the 62-year-old farmer deceased.
Police reports said Botterill apparently entered the bin to try to loosen a top layer of grain. The grain underneath became loose and gave way under him. Reports said he slipped down under more than 3.5 metres of seed oats. He was working alone at the time and not wearing a safety harness.
Family members say they think their dad may have been preoccupied that day, and possibly in a hurry too. His father was an experienced and careful farmer, but also inclined to take chances once in awhile, said his son Todd Botterill. For example, he’s borrowed safety harness for jobs like these “but he’s still gone in (to a grain bin) alone,” said Todd. They’ve exchanged words about that in the past, Todd said. “I’ve said ‘call us because even with the safety stuff on that’s a two-person job.’”
Botterill’s death is a type of fatal farm incident known as grain entrapment.
Grain entrapments are exceedingly rare in Manitoba, according to provincial farm safety specialist Glen Blahey.
North Dakota State University, which routinely publishes farm safety updates notes that at least one North Dakotan died from being trapped in grain this past winter.
People can become trapped in three ways including flowing grain, the collapse of a vertical wall of grain and the collapse of bridged grain.
Blahey said if farmers observe their grain has stopped flowing while emptying a bin, yet see no inverted cone on the surface, it’s probable that the grain as bridged, meaning it has formed a crust on the surface while a void has developed beneath.
Bridged grain usually occurs when grain is stored high in moisture content, according to Ken Hellevang, a North Dakota State University (NDSU) Extension Service engineer. Kernels then stick together and form a crust on the surface while a cavity forms beneath. When grain is removed from the bin, the crust remains intact, but it’s not strong enough to support a person’s weight. Anyone stepping or walking on it will fall through into the cavity and be buried under several feet of grain.
Wet or damp grain stored in a closed area for a while can also begin to decompose producing oxygen-deficient environments. It’s for these reasons no one should ever enter a grain bin, nor attempt to walk on the surface of the grain.
Todd Botterill says he hopes his father’s death makes other farmers stop and think before taking a chance with safety.
“Guys have to remember what we’re doing this for,” he said. “We get so hung up on all the other details, trying to get the work done… that we lose track of what’s really important and take these stupid chances. Eventually, you can only take so many.” [email protected]