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Grain bin safety a concern after wet fall harvest season

DICKINSON, N.D. -- When people speak of food being deadly, usually the reference revolves around its nutritional makeup, which can lead to long-term health issues.

Before ever reaching a table or feedlot, however, unexpected releases of stored grain can have dire consequences, as a Napoleon man unfortunately discovered earlier this month.

North Dakota State University Extension Service agricultural engineer Ken Hellevang said this week that wetter-than-normal corn, which went into storage last fall, is causing added safety concerns for growers.

“Wet corn is more prone to crusting or creating a wall of grain near the grain bin wall,” Hellevang said in a release. “This increases the potential for bin unloading problems and getting trapped by the grain.”

Napoleon farmer Charles Sperle was killed Feb. 10 when corn from a grain bin that he was unloading escaped, swallowing him up in a sea of yellow that poured out of the 30,000-bushel bin.

Southwest Grain country safety specialist Randy Ulmer said a lot can go wrong when unloading a bin.

“With the corn and sunflowers that came off the fields at high moisture, some got binned at high moisture,” Ulmer said. “That can bridge up and when they’re trying to auger it out, that can cause problems. The farmer sometimes will reach in and poke at it to loosen it up and try to get it all to fall down. If the farmer goes into the bin without the proper equipment, it can turn into a dangerous situation in a hurry.”

Ulmer said the most important proper safety precautions to remember is to stay out of the bin. Sperle, however, was just outside the bin that released corn on him.

“You have to know, when it stops flowing, to stay out of the bin and to work it from the outside without going inside,” Ulmer said. “There is a lot of weight that can come down and it comes down fast. If you know you put sunflowers or corn in wetter than normal, you need to be aware of that. Also, farmers often go into these situations alone — that’s what gets a lot of these guys in trouble. You have to communicate and tell other people what you’re doing.”

Though Ulmer said he handles safety issues for all 17 Southwest Grain locations, technical trainer Wayne Stigge covers an even larger swath of territory for its parent company, CHS Inc., and teaches courses on grain bin safety.

When he instructs, Stigge said he teaches two main courses, including an eight-hour, confined space awareness class -- with four hours of classroom work and four hours of hands-on work -- and a more in-depth 32-hour work/rescue course.

“The best thing to do is always to not make entry into the bin,” Stigge said. “We always tell people to make sure their grain stays in condition and to not put grain in that has too much moisture into a bin. If, for some reason, a person decides to make entry into a bin, they should never do it alone and they should have harness or a lifeline. The atmosphere in the space should also be tested before anyone makes entry. Those are just a few of the things to do before ever even thinking about going into a bin.”

Stigge said he will be presiding over a 32-hour course June 3-6 in Sterling and will host eight-hour confined space awareness training classes on July 16 and 17 in Minot. Those who want more information on those courses are encouraged to contact Southwest Grain or Stigge through email at

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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