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What are the health and safety risks in grain silos?

Updated: Apr 17

Grain silos are important structures for storage, but they can also pose serious dangers to the people who work in them. Becoming aware of these risks and implementing preventive measures are essential for ensuring the safety of workers in these environments.




In this article, we'll introduce you to the 5 most common hazards you need to be aware of. Your safety is important to us!


Risk 1 - Risk of engulfment

Engulfment in grain silos can occur when workers walk on unstable surfaces of stored grains that can suddenly collapse or when grains accumulated inside are released. This can happen, among other times, during the emptying of a silo, in the presence of bridging or collapsing grain walls. In these situations, a quicksand effect can occur, leading to the engulfment of a person if appropriate measures are not in place. In a matter of seconds, a person can be buried under grains and even suffer from asphyxiation.


Did you know that suffocation is one of the leading causes of death in grain storage facilities?



Moisture in the air also accentuates the danger of engulfment. This is because humidity promotes the creation of compact structures and grain clumping. It is therefore crucial to never walk directly on the grains. Using harness systems and lifelines when entering the silo is a measure that should never be overlooked.


The main risk of death, burial can occur in three ways:

  • when emptying a grain silo;

  • after emptying, when a grain bridge is formed;

  • when a wall of grain falls.

During the emptying of a silo, a quicksand effect is created in the center. In just 15 seconds, the person present in the silo will be dragged under the grains before being found lifeless or dead. Know that you have about 3 seconds to react and avoid such a risk!



The risk of grain bridging arises mainly when grain is not stored properly. For example, ventilating grain in poor conditions will increase its moisture content. Rehydrating the grain above the silo will cause it to swell, increase compaction and harden the top layer of grain in your silo. When this happens, the grain stays in place when it is emptied. If someone ventures into the silo at this point, burial is inevitable. (Watch the video!)



Finally, when grain forms columns or a wall, falling grain is extremely dangerous. Although seemingly harmless, a few inches of grain are enough to cover you and prevent you from getting up again. Worse still, in its fall, the mass of grain will throw you to the ground, knocking you unconscious and preventing you from getting up again. Incidents of this kind have already been recorded in Quebec. For example, rescue workers reported finding a deceased worker covered in just 6 inches of grain.



To avoid loss of life, simple safety measures can be put in place. For more details, consult the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association (CASA).


Risk 2 - Risk of fire and explosion

Grain dust explosions often have serious consequences, resulting in significant property damage as well as loss of human lives.


The presence of suspended grain dust or accumulation on a surface is highly flammable. These particles, in sufficient concentration in the air, can facilitate a devastating explosion in the presence of an ignition source such as hot bearings, overheated motors, or the stirring of screws.


 

Preventing this risk involves rigorous control of dust, the use of electrical and mechanical equipment designed to be explosion-proof, and the implementation of adequate ventilation systems.



Risk 3 - Risk of falls from height

Working at height is common in agricultural facilities such as grain silos. It exposes workers to the risk of falls that can cause serious injuries or death. Whether it's through movements on ladders, unprotected walkways, or roof ventilation hatches, to prevent these accidents, it is important to install guardrails, secure walkways, and always use personal protective equipment such as safety harnesses. Training in height work techniques is also essential.



Risk 4 - Risk of respiratory intoxication

The risk of respiratory intoxication in grain silos is a serious concern due to the potential presence of toxic gases. These gases can come from decomposing grains or the use of pesticides in crops. Without adequate ventilation, these toxic substances accumulate inside the silo, creating a dangerous environment for people who enter.


Exposure to these gases can cause symptoms ranging from headaches and dizziness to more serious consequences such as respiratory problems and, in extreme cases, death.


To prevent this danger, it is recommended to check the air quality inside the silo before entering, to use gas detectors, and to wear appropriate respiratory equipment when necessary. Ventilating silos before entry is another important preventive measure.



Risk 5 - Risk of amputation

Mechanical equipment used in grain silos, such as augers and conveyors, can pose serious risks of entanglement and amputation. To prevent these incidents, it is crucial to ensure that the equipment is properly protected and maintained, that protective devices are in place, and that workers are trained in the safe use of machinery. Accessible emergency stop and adherence to locking procedures during maintenance are also essential.



In conclusion

In summary, to reduce these dangers, employee training on specific hazards related to working in and around silos is crucial, as is raising awareness among workers about good grain handling practices. Establishing clear safety procedures to effectively protect workers in grain silos can certainly help as well.




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