New Technology Helps In Preventing Grain Bin Deaths

MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa — The one sure-fire way to avoid dying in a grain bin is to stay out.

That’s where Scott Haugan and some high-tech wizardry come in.

Haugan, who runs the Howgan grain storage technology firm in Marshalltown, has teamed up with the Iowa‘s science and technology apparatus to push the idea of using sensors and remote-control fans to prevent the types of grain-crusting problems that lead farmers to risk their lives by entering grain bins.

At least two Iowans have been trapped in grain bins in the past month. Brandon Tyler Mullen, 30, of Harcourt died July 9 when he was trapped while removing grain in Dayton. Arick Baker, 23, of New Providence was more fortunate, surviving when a mask he wore for asthma bought him time after he got stuck June 26 in Hardin County.

Baker beat the odds. A Purdue University study found that between 1964 and 2008, 74 percent of grain entrapment cases resulted in fatalities.

“The reason they go into the grain bins is to inspect the grain,” Haugan said.

STORY: Farmer survives being trapped in grain bin

But Howgan and other companies are now installing systems with sensors and real-time readings that can deliver farmers the information they need while they remain in the safety of their farm office, Haugan said.

The need for improved grain storage safety will only increase, Haugan said. The amount of grain storage around the country is expected to grow by 50 percent in coming decades to meet the demands of a world population headed toward 9 billion by 2050. Without changes in approach, that means more entrapment deaths.

Haugan recently demonstrated the readings a farmer sees and possible adjustments, concluding, “Since no one had to go into the bin, no one had to die.”

College training

For the past six years, Haugan has worked to develop a new version of his company’s grain-management system.

With a $6,000 state grant, he is also working with Suzanne Gauch and others to develop a curriculum to be offered at Iowa Valley Community College District in Marshalltown and elsewhere. The idea is eventually to offer two-year degrees in grain management.

That would create a new job classification around the country: grain management technician. Haugan and others are petitioning the U.S. Department of Labor to recognize the classification.

“Technology without training is useless,” Haugan said. “I think we are onto something here. The whole industry needs this so badly.”

Most Iowa farmers have taken a low-tech approach to grain storage and monitoring, simply running fans for hours and hoping it’s enough to cool the grain, he said. Many operate bins without proper roof exhaust and with what Haugan calls 1950s-era devices to measure temperatures.

Why haven’t farmers latched onto newer technology more aggressively?

“Maybe they have a fear of change,” Haugan said. “Maybe they didn’t trust it.”

Stop by the Howgan campus in Marshalltown’s industrial area and you’ll see just how high-tech grain storage can become. By adding his own beefed-up sensors and additional roof and bottom fans run by microprocessors, Haugan can tell a lot from computer displays. He can track the grain moisture, sketch the shape of the corn mound in the bin and track temperature.

The computer-run fans keep condensation from forming in the bin, which sends water onto the grain pile and causes a crust. That crust is a major reason why farmers enter a grain bin, to “walk down” the grain, or, in other words, to bust up the crust.

In addition, he or an individual farmer can track who has entered what area, when they left and whether someone is trying to steal grain. The systems also help prevent explosions.

The newer systems pay for themselves in a year or two, through energy savings that continue for years, and by preventing grain shrinkage from over-drying, Haugan said. Typically, new systems cost the equivalent of 4 cents to 16 cents per bushel of grain.

Safety advances welcomed

Renee Anthony, assistant professor of occupational and environmental health at the University of Iowa, said any system that reduces trips into grain bins will help, but won’t necessarily prevent all accidents. Farmers and elevator workers should put up hazard signs, lock entries to bins, and have an attendant present with safety equipment anytime someone goes inside, she said.

“We do think it would be a great idea to have fundamental safety hazards and preventive measures incorporated into an educational program on grain bin management,” Anthony said.

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey said because the equipment has become cheaper over the years, more farmers should be able to consider installations that will help keep them out of bins.

“The industry is ready for next-generation monitoring,” Northey said. And that’s no small thing when Iowa can produce $20 billion worth of corn and soybeans in a year.

About grain bin deaths

The Des Moines Register

Iowa deaths: From 2000 to 2010, 17 Iowans died after being trapped in grain, according to the University of Iowa College of Public Health. Another nine died after falling into or from a grain bin.

National deaths: A report by National Public Radio and the Center for Public Integrity this year documented 179 grain entrapment deaths since 1984.

Quick danger: A 6-foot person can sink waist deep in grain in five seconds, and be buried in 11 seconds.

How deaths happen: The Iowa deaths in some cases involved just the type of scenario Howgan is trying to avoid — a farmer who gets into a grain bin to “walk down” the corn or beans. That means breaking up a layer that has become crusty after condensation fell on it. A University of Iowa report said a 64-year-old farmer was knocking beans loose from the bin walls while grain was unloaded. He got trapped and suffocated. A 49-year-old co-op employee was breaking up a crust when he got stuck in soybeans. He called a co-worker on a radio, but was buried when help arrived.


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