“My day job is a nurse,” said Sandy Reyburn, the District 3 Representative of the PA Farm Bureau’s Women’s Committee. She was speaking at a PFB annual meeting seminar that focused on confined special hazards, “I see multiple things that come past me and I can’t stress enough how important safety is, how we have to be prepared on our family farms.”
That observation launched her into the first of three safety stories involving confined space. Her family shows animals at Maryland’s Cecil County Fair in July. “Someone we know owns a farm in Elkton,” she said, “and he went home after that week to continue his farming. He was cleaning out his grain bin as many of our husbands have done. He had to climb down into that confined space to get loose grain off the sides. As he trod boards down there, one of the boards slipped causing him to fall. There was about six feet of corn left on the bottom. The augur caught his leg and he went down in, but he was not completely submerged. The local fire company rescue unit was called to try to save him.
Thinking the farmer’s leg might have to be amputated, Johns Hopkins was called to amputate his leg at the scene.” The reason Reyburn referenced the county fair was because of a safety seminar given there, which fire companies attended. Because of what they learned at that seminar, the fire company was able to remove the man from the grain bin intact. “He still has his leg today.”
“These are not spaces designed for human occupancy,” says Dave Hill of the Penn State Extension, and also a licensed paramedic. “Every farm needs a safety director. I want farmers to take confined spaces seriously, because you have them and you have to work with them. They are not for the long term task.”
Silos, bins, pits, tanks. None of them are easy to get into or out of. “The big thing with these units is they are an atmospheric hazard.” By that, Hill means that they could be oxygen deficient, explosive, or have toxic gas.
“Another accident happened to a little child, four years old, the same age as my son,” said Reyburn. “This little girl was riding on a tractor, having fun with her dad; he had her in the buddy seat. But she wanted to stand up for a minute. So, she stood up, leaned against the cab door of the tractor. The cab door opened and she fell out. Her outcome was not as good as the farmer’s in the last story. She did not make it. We always have to be aware of safety; always be aware of what’s going on around you.”
Unfortunately, she was the fourth accidental death in Lancaster County in 11 days. When this story was written up in the local newspaper, the end of the article was peppered with alarming statistics: in 2011, there were 25 accidental deaths, of which seven were children. 2012 saw 28 deaths and again seven were children. 37 deaths occurred in 2013, six were children. 2014 claimed 25 deaths, and 2015’s statistics haven’t been released yet.
“High concentrations of gas can stop your respiration, and low concentrations can burn your respiratory tract, your eyes, your nose, your mouth,” says Hill. “At really low amounts, you can smell it — very small amounts. At 10 ppm (parts per million), a very little bit, your eyes can be bothered.”
OSHA would tell you that your exposure limit for an eight-hour day would be no more than 20 ppm. At 50 to 100, you get a covering over your eyes, like conjunctivitis, loss of appetite, a headache; and at 100ppm, you experience a loss of smell. And OSHA says this is where it is immediately dangerous. It will not kill you at that point. At 200 to 300 ppm, there is eye irritation, respiratory tract irritation, loss of consciousness; at 500 to 700 ppm there is loss of consciousness; and immediate danger to life and health at 1000 to 2000 ppm.
“What is the combustible gas on a livestock farm?” Hill asked his audience. They dutifully replied ‘methane.’ Leading causes of farm accidents are large animals, manure pits, hay holes, machinery and silos. Most of those are centered about confined spaces.
“My husband’s friend owns a dragline business. Quite a few summers ago,” Reyburn remembers, “this particular family had traveled down to Maryland, in the eastern shore area, to begin a dragline with his sons. It was an open air pit. Many people don’t think an open air pit is a confined space, but it is, due to the gases that can lie on top of them. No one to this day can really account for what happened to them. No one was around.”
The only thing they know is that the truck was still running and they all disappeared. Once the truck was found, the call went out to any manure trucks, anyone who had a pump truck, or anything of that sort, asking them to come immediately because it was assumed that the men were in the manure pit. Responders were there for many hours continuing to pump out the manure until dawn. Eventually, they found all members of the family, the father and his sons, at which point they had to decide who was going to get them out. Police and the fire company were called but didn’t want to enter the pit because of the manure.
One of the manure men finally said, “This is disrespectful!” Another manure man said, “I’ve had enough. Tie the rope to me, I’m going in.” He removed the family from the pit.
“The common denominator word in these stories is ‘accident,’ said Reyburn. “We never know when an accident is going to occur, but we have to be prepared when it does happen.”