Grain Engulfment: Quicksand of the Midwest

Grain Engulfment: Quicksand of the Midwest

Midwest harvest preparations include cleaning and fumigating grain bins, preparing equipment, and getting trucks ready to roll. Add in long hours and a sense of urgency, and what gets left out? The most important factor — human safety.

Warning sign on a grain bin
Figure 1. This sign on the side of a grain bin warns individuals about the dangers of entrapment and how to avoid it. [Source: Central States Center for Agricultural Safety and Health (CS-CASH)]

As National Farm Safety and Health Week (Sept. 18-24) concludes, the overarching message for harvest workers is awareness. Survey the workplace, environment, and roads for hazards such as power lines that could get entangled with grain augers, dust (Protect Your Lungs with Properly Fitted Respiratory Masks), and the potential for grain engulfment, a hazard that often leads to death.

Most people associate grain engulfment with grain bins; however, grain engulfment can happen in trucks, grain carts, and rail cars, as well as in bins and on-ground storage and silage piles. Often people enter bins to loosen clumps or bridges because grain has gone out of condition. During harvest, people sitting on the edge of a truck, cart or rail car have lost their lives after falling inside while grain was being unloaded.

Both experienced and inexperienced workers underestimate the deadly risks associated with the speed and force of flowing or shifting grain. Purdue University reported more than 900 cases of grain engulfment nationally and a fatality rate of 62% in the past 50 years.

Nebraska has had nine grain-bin and bin-auger related fatalities from 2012 through March 2016. Many local volunteer fire departments and commercial grain facilities have trained personnel equipped to extricate a trapped victim. Know where these specialists are and how to quickly contact them if needed, advises Nebraska Extension Educator Keith Jarvi.

Steps to Avoid Entrapment

Every flowing grain entrapment is preventable. To stay safe, the National Ag Safety Database advises following these precautions:

  • Stay out of grain bins, wagons, and grain trucks when unloading equipment is running.
  • Never work alone around grain bins. Be certain someone knows when you enter a bin and remains nearby to prevent the start-up of equipment or to call for help.
  • If it is necessary to enter the bin, shut off the unloader. It is a good idea to lock out and tag any unloading equipment before entering a bin to prevent someone from unintentionally starting the equipment while you are in the bin.
  • Never allow children to play in or around grain bins, wagons, or truck beds.
  • Where possible, install ladders and ropes inside grain bins to provide a grab hold or an emergency exit. Attach ropes to the ladders and to the top center of the bin. Anyone entering the bin should attach a rope and harness to themselves before entering. Ladders are easier to locate inside a dusty bin if they have brightly painted stripes just above or behind the ladder.

NASD also advises that if you must enter the bin, you should: 

  • Wear a harness attached to a rope.
  • Stay near the outer wall of the bin and keep walking if the grain should start to flow. Get to the bin ladder or safety rope as quickly as possible.
  • Have another person, preferably two people, outside the bin who can help if you become entrapped. These people should be trained in rescue procedures and should know and follow safety procedures for entering the confined space.
  • Grain fines and dust may cause difficulty in breathing. Anyone working in a grain bin, especially for the purpose of cleaning the bin, should wear an appropriate dust filter or filter respirator.

By the Numbers: Engulfments Happen Fast

Grain engulfment and entrapment incidents are on the rise due to record harvests, larger storage facilities, and equipment that moves grain at faster rates than ever before.

Beware — flowing grain is like quicksand. It continually flows to fill in holes created by a person going down, creating a suction.

  • In 4 seconds, an adult can sink knee-deep in the suction of flowing grain, unable to get free without help.
  • The faster grain flows, the faster he/she is submerged. The average body volume is 5-7 cubic feet. An average 10-inch auger unloading 4,086 bushels/hour will completely engulf a person in less than 60 seconds.
  • Most engulfed victims do not survive. Grain exerts forces of friction and pressure on a person that prevent self-escape.
  • A person buried to the waist in grain requires a force equivalent to his/her own body weight plus 600 pounds to be freed. The force required to remove a person buried under grain can exceed 2,000 pounds.
  • A person submerged to the chest or deeper is unable to get proper oxygen circulation to heart, lungs, and brain. When submerged, grain may get into the person’s nose. If that happens, a person will open his/her mouth. Moisture in the nose and mouth will cause the grain to expand, making it impossible to breathe.
  • A survivor may need surgery to relieve leg swelling due to oxygen loss; limb loss also is a possibility.
Grain Engulfment and Entrapment by the Great Plains Center for Agricultural Health
Fast Facts from the Grain Handling Safety Coalition


For videos on grain bin safety and other farm safety topics, see these from the US Agricultural Safety and Health Centers:

The National Corn Growers Association also offers a sobering 13-minute video on fatalities and new rescue methods: Grain Bin Safety.


Keith Jarvi, Extension Educator for Dixon, Wayne, Cedar and Knox counties

Ellen Duysen, community outreach specialist for the Central States Center for Agricultural Safety and Health (CS-CASH); Department of Environmental, Agricultural and Occupational Health, University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha


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