Farm safety is no joke, and it's hard to find anyone who is more serious about - or more dedicated to - grain bin safety in particular than Dale Dobson.
Dobson, who is well-known around the state in his position as safety administrator for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, also serves as an instructor at the Dixie Fire School. He's also a former dairy farmer, and those three life experiences make him the best guy in the state to talk about grain bin safety. He's been part of successful rescues, and he's had the somber duty of recovering bodies in unsuccessful rescue attempts.
Dobson recently set up his grain bin rescue trailer at the LaRue County AgStravaganza, and gave attendees a look into the terrifying (and preventable) world of grain engulfment and bin entrapment. Many of those who view this safety demonstration are children at Farm Safety Days across the Commonwealth, and as you can see from the photos, the visual of a half-pipe grain bin, some grain and an unlucky Barbie doll tell the story of engulfment in terms that anyone can understand.
He describes the three main categories of entrapment: unloading entrapment, the most common form of entrapment, caused when a victim becomes engulfed in flowing grain that is being unloaded from a bin; bridging entrapment, pictured in the demonstration at left, in which a victim falls through crusted grain into a cavity created as a result of unloading a portion of the grain; and avalanche entrapment, which can happen when vertically crusted grain becomes dislodged and engulfs the victim. Dobson also covers grain bin transport vehicle entrapment, which is a danger when the victim becomes engulfed in grain while located in a grain truck.
"In entrapment," Dobson says, "you are in a race against time that you can't win. A flowing column of grain will pull you down to knee level and bury you in seconds." Dobson added that with the ever-increasing amount of on-farm grain storage, there are more people working around large-scale grain bins. "It used to be a farmer would have a 10,000 bushel bin and a portable auger, but now some of these big farmers have grain systems that will hold 125,000 to a half a million bushels. No matter what the size of the bins or the operation, they're dangerous and they can kill you."
Some farms with large grain systems have one simple rule, Dobson said. "You do not enter a bin. On a lot of farms, you just do not do it, and if you are in an emergency situation, you work the buddy system and you go in with ropes and harnesses. I've seen farmers fire their help for entering a bin," he said, "and if that saves lives, so be it."
Dobson works with a cut out half-bin to show how grain flows in the bin. "People really don't understand how the bins work and how the grain moves inside the bins, see, and that's a real eye-opener for the rescuers when we are doing training. When you're augering out, the grain flows across the top and down the middle. That's how people get caught - they get caught in the middle of that flow and it just overtakes them."
He has a drill mounted on the side of the display to show just how quickly the grain can move and engulf Barbie, whom Dobson refers to as "Rescue Whitney," after a former co-worker.
"Once you get caught," he said, "we have to figure out how to get you out alive. If a bunch of big guys run down there to you without a plan, the grain can shift and bury you. We have to have a plan before we as rescuers ever sit foot in the bin. We may be able to get you out with a rescue system, we may have to cut holes in the sides of the bin to let the grain out - there's a lot of options but somebody has to know what they're doing to pick the best option for the situation."
He pointed out that we in ag talk frequently about consumers being two to three generations removed from the farm, and reminds farmers that includes the firefighters and rescue squads.
"You can't just go in cutting up grain bins without a plan," he said. "You have to relieve the pressure evenly on all sides so a rescuer can walk in on a low spot and help the person without crushing them with the added weight - you can't cut down too low on a bin, because it has a false bottom and you might be wasting time. These guys and ladies may not have ever been close to a grain bin, and that's why getting them trained properly is so important."
One option that Dobson says can help with some entrapments is a coffer dam system like the newly mass-produced Turtle Tube Rescue Sleeve.
"There's a lot of systems out there for grain bin rescue," he said, "and there's pros and cons to all of them. This one weighs 18 pounds, comes in a bag with handles and is one piece. It can stay on the fire truck or even hang right by the door to the bin on the farm. It's affordable ($995) and lightweight and portable, and I think it could save a lot of lives."
Dobson came up with the concept of a lightweight, portable coffer dam himself several years ago, and had been teaching people how to make them out of available materials, including plastic garbage cans. After a meeting last December with a longtime friend Tom Norton who owns Turtle Plastics, Dobson turned the concept over to him and said "figure out how to make this thing," and by the National Farm Machinery Show, the Turtle Tube was on the market.
The day before the show opened, John Griffith of Sedalia was in the expo center and decided that he wanted to be the first to own this system, so he bought one on the spot. Patrick Lowry of Lowry Farms in Pilot Oak was with Griffith, and he bought the second one.
"I hope these guys never have to use this thing," Dobson said. "But if they need it or their guys need it or their local fire department needs it, it's right there and ready to go."
Dobson, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture and the Kentucky Soybean Association remind farmers to be careful in and around grain bin and hauling equipment this harvest season. Know the risks and the dangers, and stay safe.