The United States has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions and has almost reached its 2020 goal. There is still a long way to go to meet the goals set for 2050. The use of biomass products will play a large role in reaching this goal, and today’s farmers are gearing up production of alternative fuel sources such as switchgrass, willow and other plant-based crops to be harvested for fuel use.
Penn State’s Northeast Woody/Warm Season Biomass Consortium (NEWBio) is focusing on the production of switchgrass, miscanthus grass, and coppice production of willow on farms in the Northeast. These perennial crops are well-suited for the region, in part due to their suitability for production on marginal lands.
“It’s hard to get a handle on the sheer volume of biomass that people are looking at… to provide the amount of energy that this country is hoping to produce,” Doug Schaufler, Penn State Research Assistant said.
While in some ways, producing a biomass field crop is very similar to conventional commodity crop production, biomass production brings with it its own set of safety concerns.
“Safety and health is a piece of this project,” Schaufler said of NEWBio’s initiative. Reviewing existing safety data and standards, applying hazard and risk management tools, offering education and training, and attempting to limit any damage which may occur in biomass production is a key component of the project, which will “address the hazards that may be associated with on-farm production of biomass crops.”
There currently is no recognized safety standard for biomass crop production. Any health and safety occurrences have been classified by Occupational Health and Safety Administration in a variety of other categories. Injuries from switchgrass production will be categorized under “hay,” while injuries from short-rotation woody crops might be classified under nursery, making injury tracking and safety reporting an issue.
“There’s no umbrella for the biomass industry,” Schaufler said.
There also is a concern that OSHA might eventually attempt to classify the biomass industry outside of agricultural production, and consider it as processing. A similar situation caused an outcry from the agricultural community when grain bins were to be re-classified as processing, not agricultural, enterprises.
“When biomass appears, whether or not it will start to be considered an agricultural activity,” is debatable, Schaufler said. “As farms ramp-up their activities in biomass,” this could be crucial.
A Haddon Matrix can be used to address potential health and safety issues, Schaufler said. In this formulation, any incidents are considered in three stages: pre-event, event, and post-event. Biofuel production can be divided into three categories of concern: workers; equipment; and physical environment. By addressing all three incident stages in each category of production, potential areas of concern can be identified, processes put in place to minimize risk, and procedures established in the event a hazardous situation or accident does occur.
An analysis of biomass production of perennial grasses and short rotation woody crops shows that many of the production safety concerns will be similar to those of conventional crop production. Equipment used will include tractors, sprayers, planters, trucks and other common on-farm machinery.
Employees will need training and appropriate personal protective gear. Equipment should be properly maintained and rollover bars, seat belts, automatic shut-off switches and other safety features should be present. Adequate means of communication should be maintained, and employees should not work alone. First aid training, field or storage area accessibility and appropriate rescue equipment should be available.
Aside from these standard concerns which would be applicable to any agricultural operation, NEWBio has identified several areas which are unique to biomass production. Addressing these hazards, which may not be familiar to producers, is a primary focus of education.
On-farm biomass production may differ from conventional agriculture in several important ways. The perennial biomass crops have been selected for their ability to grow on otherwise compromised, marginal lands. Typically they may be grown on rocky, hilly, and wet lands unsuitable for conventional crops.
“Marginal lands present hazards of their own to be considered,” Schaufler said.
Some common issues include: the rollover risk to equipment on steep slopes; issues navigating wet areas or areas near streambeds; and rocks or other debris being baled along with the crop and potentially causing human injury, mechanical breakdown, or even fire due to sparking when the bale passes through equipment. Round bales are now commonly being harvested in perennial grass production, but on hilly areas, problems with rolling bales have been reported, he said.
Another major concern is fire. Grasses are harvested after they dry in the field. The low moisture content makes fire — both in the field as well as in storage — a concern.
“Large fields of very, very, dry materials” are a hazard, Schaufler said. “And because this is material that may be of varying moisture content, spontaneous combustion is a real concern.”
Respiratory problems can occur with biomass. Dust from dried materials can cause difficulty, and mold or fungus can also be of concern. Rodents like to nest in biomass materials, and snakes like to follow the mice, causing a several hazards. Rodent fecal materials can cause respiratory issues, and snakes can cause bites.
During harvesting, biomass materials can present a hazard because of their sharpness. Willow crops will have a very stiff, sharp end over a foot long after harvesting. Even the native warm season grasses tend to have thicker, denser, sharper stems than some other grasses.
Willow “is a difficult crop for agricultural producers” and presents an eye hazard, Schaufler said. The sharpness of the harvest has caused tire punctures, requiring logging tires to prevent problems. Because these crops are harvested late in the season, snow and ice coverage — compounded by the marginal ground on which they grow — can be a serious hazard.
The next step is for NEWBio is to determine exactly what equipment is currently being used to harvest biomass crops, how the crops are being stored, and what changes in planting, harvesting, and storage may need to be made from a health and safety standpoint. They are seeking input from producers and agricultural professionals on any concerns, or any best practices to alleviate concerns.
There are currently about 5,000 acres of switchgrass planted in Western Pennsylvania. New York state has over 1,000 acres of shrub willow in production. As production of biomass crops increases in the Northeast, NEWBio is working to establish templates for the safe production of on-farm biomass crops.