By Starrla Cray
NEW GERMANY, MN “This will only take a second,” a busy farmer thinks as he enters his grain bin, attempting to dislodge a clump of corn that’s formed over the auger.
But, suddenly, the seemingly simple task becomes a death trap, as the grain collapses under his weight.
In an instant, the farmer is trapped in the flowing kernels. Within 10 seconds, he is completely submerged, unable to breathe.
The 24 members of the New Germany Fire Department hope this scenario will never happen to anyone in their area, but if it does, they’ll know what to do.
The department completed an 8-hour grain bin rescue course through South Central College April 16 and 17, which included an evening of hands-on instruction.
“We thought this would be good training to have,” Fire Chief Steve VanLith said. “We haven’t had [an accident] here knock on wood but we want to be prepared just in case.”
New Germany firefighters utilized state training money to fund the course, which was taught by North Mankato firefighter Tim Senne and Henderson Fire Chief Brandon Phillips.
“It’s training you hope you never use,” said Senne, who instructs firefighters throughout the Midwest.
Since January, Phillips has led about 20 grain bin rescue trainings.
“Last winter, we trained a fire department in Wisconsin, and three weeks later, they had [a grain bin rescue],” he said.
According to an article from Minnesota Public Radio, a Purdue University report showed 51 grain bin accidents in 2010, the highest number since tracking began in 1978. Twenty-five people died, and five of them were children under age 16.
One of those accidents happened close to home.
In October 2010, Loren Helmbrecht, 57, of Howard Lake, became trapped in a grain bin filled with soybeans while working at Randy Dalbec’s farm south of Montrose. Fortunately, the Montrose Fire Department got there in time, and Helmbrecht was rescued without injury.
A similar accident occurred in February 2009, when 39-year-old Herasmo Olivas was rescued from a 10,000-bushel bin of frozen corn in Marysville Township, north of Montrose.
Although those situations had happy endings, many do not.
“It’s usually recovery, not rescue,” Senne said.
“Your odds are better trapped in a burning building,” added Phillips. “There is so much pressure on your lungs.”
Those fortunate enough to be rescued often need CPR.
Be safe, stay alive
To reduce the risk of an accident, people working with grain bins, wagons, or truck beds should carry a cell phone with them, and should never work alone.
The National Ag Safety Database states that, if possible, farm workers should break up crusted grain from the outside of the bin with a long pole.
If they must enter the bin, they should wear a harness attached to a rope and stay near the outer wall of the bin. Because grain dust can cause breathing difficulty, anyone working in a grain bin should also wear a dust filter.
“Another big thing is to just turn the power off,” Senne said, explaining that if the auger is running, it is even easier to be pulled down into the bin.
“It’s like a suction around your legs,” he said. “It takes a lot to get somebody out.”
Training in NG
The first four hours of New Germany’s training included detailed information about how to perform a grain bin rescue.
The next evening, firefighters had the opportunity to practice what they learned.
A small bin filled with field tile punch-outs (to simulate grain) was placed next to the New Germany Fire Hall.
In groups of two, firefighters took turns “rescuing” a 145-pound dummy buried in the bin.
Before going in, each firefighter put on a harness attached to a 100-foot safety rope.
Once inside the bin, firefighters used plastic panels and plywood to form a crib-like barrier around the dummy, quickly and carefully digging it out of the pile. They then fastened the dummy to a Sked rescue stretcher, and laced it with a rescue rope.
From there, firefighters outside the bin used pulleys to lift the dummy to safety.
Now that members have received training in this area, VanLith said the New Germany Fire Department is hoping to get its own grain bin rescue equipment.
According to a 2011 Wall Street Journal article, farming is a risky occupation. The article states that the rate of fatal occupational injuries for farmers and ranchers in 2009 was 38.5 per 100,000 full-time workers, versus 4.4 for firefighters, and 13.1 for police and sheriff’s patrol officers.