By MICHAEL J. CRUMB, Associated Press
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Clumps of moldy corn crashed down around Lael Steinhoff, burying him above his waist for more than three hours before rescue workers could free him from a grain bin on his western Iowa farm.
Steinhoff, 61, was one of the lucky survivors last year when a record number of grain bin accidents were recorded as U.S. farmers continued to increase production and deal with storage of a wet crop from 2009.
A Purdue University report showed 51 grain bin accidents last year, up from 38 in 2009 and the most since tracking began in 1978. Twenty-five people died, and five of them were children under age 16. The previous record for grain bin accidents was 42 in 1993.
The accidents prompted the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to send letters this week to 10,000 grain bin operators across the U.S. telling them they are responsible for preventing the deaths of their workers in grain bins.
"Too many people have been killed. Too many children have been killed," said David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA. "It doesn't make a difference the size of the operation, the risk is serious."
The letters follow a batch OSHA sent last summer to 3,000 grain storage operators after three people died in two accidents at storage facilities in Illinois. One of the accidents involved two teenagers who were sent into a grain bin at a Haasbach LLC terminal in Mount Carroll, Ill., to break up grain that had clumped together. The bin, which held up to 500,000 bushels, was about half full, and rescue workers had to cut holes in its sides and drain thousands of bushels of grain to reach their bodies.
Bill Field, a Purdue University professor who has studied grain bin accidents for 30 years, said such accidents had already been becoming more common when there was a spike after the 2009 harvest.
"What we had throughout the Corn Belt was high levels of moisture and some was put into storage and began to spoil," Field said. "That caused a problem with mold and grain caking together and not being able to flow out of the bin."
Storage facility workers and farmers have been climbing into bins to break up the grain and get it flowing again. Steinhoff, who lives near Hornick, said he got trapped while trying to free up corn that had clumped and was blocking the flow from the auger, a piece of machinery that moves grain out of the bin. Rescue crews built a plywood box around him and used a shop vacuum to remove corn close to him and lift him to safety. He was flown by helicopter to a Sioux City hospital but was released after just two hours. Although he'd been stuck before, he said it was the first time he had to be rescued.
Field said the huge increase in grain production in recent years and construction of more bins also has been a factor in the increase in accidents.
"We've been producing an incredible amount of grain and have more storage capacity than ever," he said. "We are growing more to make ethanol, and we're hanging on to corn longer trying to obtain the highest price we can and that increases the risk of spoilage."
The bulk of the grain bin accidents have been in major corn and soybean growing states. Illinois led the country with 10 accidents last year, followed by Minnesota with eight. Wisconsin had seven, and five were reported in Iowa.
Grain bin accidents have continue to rise as other types of agricultural accidents have decreased. Field said that's because technology in that sector hasn't kept up with improvements in other areas, such as tractor safety. Improvements are needed in design, safe access to grain bins and the ability to rescue people who become trapped, he said. He believes that will happen with a new generation of farmers taking over.
"The social contract that farming has with the general public is changing and what was once tolerated and acceptable in agriculture is not acceptable to the general public who say 'We want to move away from those high death rates,"' he said. "As a new generation comes up there will be a different expectation."
Meanwhile, OSHA has been taking a tougher stance on violations of current safety standards. Haasbach LLC was fined $555,000 for two dozen safety violations after the accident that killed the teenagers in Illinois, and Michaels said it will consider pursuing criminal charges against grain handlers involved in accidents.
"None of these would have occurred if simple procedures would have been followed," he said. "You don't blame the grain."
The letter OSHA is sending grain storage operators outlines seven steps that should be taken to reduce the risk of injury or death, including turning off augers and other power equipment before entering bins; prohibiting walking on grain; providing a body harness with a lifeline for anyone going into a grain bin; and making sure there's someone outside the bin who can help if something goes wrong.
Small farmers who store their own grain also need to take the proper precautions before entering bins, Michaels said.
"I'd say think twice, then think again before you considering endangering yourself or your family," he said.
But Steinhoff said he doesn't think the push for increased safety will make much difference.
"I don't know any farmer that would tie himself off, they go in just like I did," he said. "They know the chances, but you know it's never going to happen to you. I'm not saying it's right, but it's human nature."
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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