In farm country, the risk of grain bin entrapment is a concern for emergency crews

By Louis Hoglund

It is a simple instrument, but invaluable in rescuing victims in the event of a grain bin entrapment. This rescue auger device, which can be operated by a hand drill, was donated to the Pelican Rapids Volunteer Fire Department.
At right, Peter Scott, who donated the equipment on behalf of the Pelican Rapids Farmers Elevator. Foreground left, Pelican Fire Chief Trevor Steeves. Background, from left, firefighters Gary Motz, Ryan Huseby, Josh Steeves, and Jason Nelson.

“Drowning” in a sea of grain isn’t a pleasant way to go.

Grain bin incidents at elevators and other agriculture installations are rare—but they do occur.

As recently as 2018,  Pelican Rapids Fire Department was called to a grain entrapment at the GVT turkey feed plant near Erhard. Firefighters trained for it numerous times—but hadn’t had an emergency grain bin accident in 26 years.  

Thanks to a donation of a grain bin rescue unit from the Farmers Elevator Cooperative of Pelican Rapids, Pelican Rapids firefighters will be prepared. As a guy who is surrounded by grain, and wrapping up harvest season, Pelican elevator manager Peter Scott was pleased he could assist the fire Department with the donation. 

The unit, which can be operated by a simple hand drill, costs about $1,000.

Essentially an auger, the unit can be hand-carried—and hardly resembles a life-or-death apparatus.  But it is capable of filling a five-gallon bucket with grain in a matter of 30 seconds.  The augur displaces the grain, enabling rescuers to retrieve the victim.  

Pelican firefighters trained recently with Vergas firefighters recently pulled a rescue dummy from a simulated grain bin entrapment. The rescue operation also incorporates a chute-like enclosure that surrounds a trapped victim or rescuer to prevent grain from  Death by grain suffocation is a frightening experience.  When grain rises little more than knee level on an entrapped victim—they cannot move.   Imagine being stuck in quicksand with no mobility.  

Pelican and Vergas firefighters recently trained for a grain bin entrapment rescue at the Pelican firehall. Note the metal chute device in the foreground, which is pounded into the grain to create a cylinder enclosure around the victim.

Grain entrapment, or grain engulfment
Occurs when a person becomes submerged in grain and cannot get out without assistance. It most frequently occurs in grain bins and other storage facilities such as silos or grain elevators or in grain transportation vehicles, but has also been known to occur around any large quantity of grain, even freestanding piles outdoors.
Usually, unstable grain collapses suddenly, wholly or partially burying workers who may be within it.
Entrapment occurs when victims are partially submerged but cannot remove themselves; engulfment occurs when they are completely buried within the grain. Engulfment has a very high fatality rate.

It can take only a few seconds to be helpless in flowing grain.  

The risk of such scenarios is on the rise—because grain bins keep getting bigger.

In 2016, 18 people died from entrapment in 29 incidents.  

By 2019, there were 38-grain entrapment incidents, with 23 deaths. 

Truth is, many grain bin accidents don’t end favorably.  From 2019 to 2020, 60 percent of grain bin accidents ended with fatalities. 

In 2018, the fire department called on Ripley’s Inc., Erhard, to assist with an industrial-strength vacuum machine that displaced the grain through a four-inch hose. 

That accident occurred when the victim was trying to clean a blockage.  Part of the mounds of corn collapsed and nearly buried him.