Lessons From the Field:
Farmer Swallowed by 450 Pounds of Grain
What can you buy for $350? A few nice outfits for the office? A weekend getaway on a budget?
How about your life?
That’s how much Arick Baker’s parents dropped on a ventilation mask to offset the asthma he suffered as a child. On a hot Midwest day last summer, that mask may have helped the 23-year-old farmer survive a workplace accident that more often than not results in a fatality.
On June 26, Arick entered an 80,000-bushel grain bin to unplug a hole. Suddenly, an air pocket sucked him down. In the time it takes to tie your shoes, he was swallowed by 22,000 bushels of corn. Thinking about nothing but his next breath, Arick knew his prospects weren’t promising.
Grain entrapments are rare but typically fatal. Between 1964 and 2005, 74 percent of such accidents resulted in death, according to a Purdue University report.
Making matters worse, Arick’s co-workers had left the job site, leaving him alone with 450 pounds of grain pushing against his chest and plenty of time to ponder his mortality.
“For 10 minutes, I just OK’d myself that I was going to die,” said Arick. “My whole life, I’ve been told that if you go down in a grain bin, you die.”
The rescue workers who came to Arick’s aid had likely heard the same thing. So had the 100-plus members of the community who joined the effort, but none resigned themselves to the status quo.
As the team worked feverishly above, Arick drifted in and out of consciousness below. The ventilation mask he was wearing doesn’t produce oxygen, but it does filter dust and mold. He partially credits the mask for saving his life.
After about three hours of digging, the team snatched Arick from the bin relatively unscathed. An injured foot, a rope burn and a few scratches were the only physical signs of how he had spent the last five hours.
General safety tips
Reflecting on the ordeal, Arick says it seems surreal, like he “read a good book.” Any employer, regardless of industry, can learn lessons from this near-tragic incident. If you apply these principles, you can help ensure your next workplace accident has a similarly happy ending.
Co-workers should watch each other’s backs. Arick had been trapped in the grain bin for an hour before a co-worker returned. Safety works best when employees accept accountability for each other’s well-being. It is critical that workers watch each other’s backs, especially when doing high-hazard tasks.
Safety training saves lives. A fire department veteran who participated in Arick’s rescue said he had been involved in exactly one grain bin entrapment in 25 years on the job. That was three years ago, and the victim died. Fortunately, the fireman and his peers relied on their training to prevent Arick from suffering a similar fate. This incident underscores the importance of providing ongoing safety training and routinely practicing your emergency response plan.
Health and safety are inseparable. Arick’s five-hour fight for oxygen was physically taxing. Doctors told him his heart was beating at 90 percent of its capacity in the minutes after his rescue. He acknowledged that his fitness likely played a role in his survival. Arick’s story is a reminder that employee health and safety are inseparable.
Understanding risk before we accept it is critical. This principle is even true of seemingly safe tasks like typing on a computer. Before we start a new job, we should ask ourselves three questions:
- Do I see the risk?
- Do I understand the risk?
- Do I accept the risk?
You might expect Arick to answer yes to the first two questions, but what about number three?
“I’m going to be a farmer the rest of my life,” said Arick. “I need to get used to going into grain bins. I will take extra safety precautions, but it has to be done.”
Incident-specific safety tips
- Use a push stick or similar device to break up clogs.
- Do not enter a grain bin without a confined space bin entry permit, as well as adequate equipment and personnel to perform rescue operations.
- Mechanical equipment such as augers, motor drives and switches must be in the off position, locked out and tagged.
- Slide gates must be closed to prevent grain flow in and out of bins.
- Top bin entry requires a full body harness and lanyard, with a tripod or winch designed for personal fall protection or rescue.
- Employees shall not be allowed to sink above waist-high in grain.
For more grain bin safety tips, visit the Occupational Safety and Health Administration website.
Any employer, regardless of industry, can learn lessons from this near-tragic incident.