BY KAREN SCHWALLER
LAKE PARK - Job statistics show that farming is one of the most dangerous occupations, with many risks for injury or death.
But the Cooperative Elevator Association is teaming up with its surrounding area fire departments to help "put the net" underneath farmers and other farm workers.
CEA has purchased grain bin rescue equipment for fire departments in it has locations - Ocheyedan, Hartley, Sibley, Harris and Lake Park.
"It's one more step we could take to show that CEA is committed to the communities we're part of," said Bob Frank, location manager of CEA in Lake Park. "We would like to say thank you to the (fire department) guys who said they would accept this equipment, because it changes their training, and it's a huge responsibility for them."
"Everyone goes home"
Corey Wingate got up on June 7, 2011, and went to work at CEA in Ocheyedan thinking it would be a routine work day.
While at work he was checking on grain piles stored outdoors to inspect the outside ring/pile, and became engulfed. Unable to free himself, he died that day, leaving behind a wife and two young children at home.
CEA officials - along with the Ocheyedan community - were shaken by that event, and because of that tragedy, officials at CEA decided they must do something to protect those who handle grain at their facilities.
Officials opted for bin rescue equipment consisting of two sets of metal cylinder-like tubes, about the height of a person. Each cylinder is made up of five curved panels, which can fit down the hole at the top of a grain bin, and can be assembled in the bin by rescue workers around the engulfed person. The metal tube has ladder-like handles fabricated onto the inside of one of the panels, so that when enough grain has been removed from inside the tube, he/she can climb up the "ladder" to safety.
"Our saying now at CEA in regard to the safety of our employees and (others) who handle grain, is that 'everyone goes home at the end of the (work) day' to see their family," Frank said. "That accident really opened our eyes to the need for this kind of rescue equipment.
"It's meant not only to help protect the safety of our employees, but for farmers in all of our communities."
Rescue workers wear safety harnesses and ropes inside the bin to protect their own safety while trying to remove the entrapped person.
"We have been told and told at trainings that you don't bring the victims to the scene," Brandon Ehret, Lake Park fire chief said.
"When rescuing someone (in any scenario), our own safety has to come first."
The cost of this rescue equipment is $2,000 per set. Fire department members received training in Ocheyedan and Milford, and will soon be trained further in Minnesota.
Ehret said sheets of plywood have been used in the past to free engulfed workers. He added that they still need to purchase some harnesses and ropes in order to complete the new equipment.
Lake Park Fire Department members "flipped omelets" to purchase the trailer needed to haul the equipment. A nearby sign read, "Grain Bin and Ag Rescue." The trailer hitch was built and donated by Maurer Manufacturing, of Spencer.
Grain handling tips
Ehret said grain suffocation happens not only in grain bins, but in outside grain piles as well, such as in the Wingate accident. When grain is flowing, it creates a vacuum of sorts, which can take the average person and suck them into the grain very quickly.
Ehret said even when someone is up to their knees, it's hard to get out.
"If they're in up to their waist, they're going to have to be pretty strong in order to get themselves out on their own. They may not even be able to get out by then," he said.
All this can happen in a matter of seconds, depending on the size of auger that is moving the grain, reiterating how quickly a person can die in a grain bin. He said the department approaches a grain bin entrapment as a rescue effort, until they get to the scene and find out otherwise.
Ehret said if a persons suspects that someone is in a bin and cannot get out, they should not enter the bin, lest they become another victim.
"If you hear an auger rattling away and no one is around, or a tractor running and nobody is around, just call 911," he advised. "If the auger or tractor is running, you won't hear someone yelling from inside the bin."
Grain handlers, he added, should never enter a bin without letting someone know where they are, and should never work around grain bins alone.
"Call the neighbor and have them come over, or at least alert someone that you'll be in the bin if you have to work in that bin alone," he said.
Ehret said once they get to a grain bin rescue, they have to locate the power source, and that job is best left to rescue workers.
"If you go around flipping switches and don't know what those switches are for, you can make things worse for the person inside the bin," he warned. "If you think or know someone is entrapped, don't do anything, don't go in after them - just call 911.
"It's really the best thing you can do for that person."
Jarrod Wallace, assistant fire chief in Lake Park, said a person inside the bin can help themselves by covering his or her face with a shirt or their cap.
"No one ever died by the weight of the grain - they die from ingesting the grain," Ehret added. "When they ingest it, it swells up and they suffocate."
CEA has become much more rigorous in their safety standards for grain handlers since the accident at their Ocheyedan location last summer. They never allow a worker to enter a bin alone, and have at a bare minimum of two or three people at grain bin sites where they are working, both inside and outside.
They have spotters in place whenever they are unloading the bottoms of grain bins, doing nothing but watching for potential safety hazards.
"We've trained our employees to be much more aware of the dangers of handling grain," Frank said. "So many people think it will only take a second to plug this in or that it will only take a second to do something in that bin, but that second could cost a life.
"We tell our people to take a minute to fully assess the situation first."
Using the mantra of "Everyone Goes Home," CEA and area fire department officials hope that people will be smart when working around grain bins, and they hope to keep tragedy away from their small communities.
"A lot of us have parents that farm, and a lot of us farm ourselves," Ehret said, referring to himself and 22 members of his team of fire and rescue personnel. "We know everybody in our small communities, and everybody is affected emotionally and psychologically when something like (a grain bin accident) happens.
"It's nice having the right kind of equipment here to do the job effectively."