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Who will die next in a confined space incident?

Tom J. Bechman grain bin system
RESPECT THE BINS: Staying out of grain bins with grain inside saves lives and keeps farm families intact.
Annual report shows modest decline from 2020 to 2021, but the threat remains strong.

The annual report summarizing injuries and fatalities in U.S. agriculture issued in April contained bad news and not-so-bad news. The summary is compiled by the Purdue University Agricultural and Biological Engineering Department. Bill Field heads up the team. Those assisting him included Yuan-Hsin Cheng, Mahmoud Nour, Kingsley Ambrose and Ed Sheldon.

What’s the bad news? That farm people died in confined space incidents in 2021. The report says no fewer than 23 fatal cases in agricultural confined spaces were documented in 2021. Another 36 cases involved non-fatal injuries. The report uses the phrase “no fewer than” because it’s very likely that not all cases are reported, Field says. In fact, based on earlier research, he estimates that 30% of all cases go unreported or undocumented.

So, what’s the good news? The total number of cases involving confined spaces, both fatal and non-fatal, at 59, represented a 7.8% decrease from 2020, when 64 cases were reported nationwide. Total cases in 2021 were below the five-year average of 61 and the 10-year average of 60.1, although not by much.

“The frequency of cases remains a concern, considering the substantial amounts of resources invested in solving the problem,” Field emphasizes.

Find the 2021 summary and earlier annual summaries at agconfinedspaces.org.

Key findings

Here are take-home points to remember from the 2021 survey:

Grain entrapments vs. other causes. In 2021, no fewer than 29 cases resulted from grain bin entrapments, or 49% of all cases involving confined spaces. That’s 17.1% fewer than a year ago, and lower than the five-year average. The five-year running average peaked in 2011 at 40.4 cases.

Livestock cases. Eight cases in 2021 involved livestock facilities, which tend to have many confined spaces. Seven of those eight were fatal, with three deaths occurring in one incident in Ohio.

Fatal vs. non-fatal cases. In 2021, 23 of the total cases reported were fatal, or 39%. Historically, 59% of all cases reported were fatalities. Again, on the surface, that appears to be good news, but it is still a large number compared to the time and effort invested in educating people, trying to lower the numbers, Field says.

Ag confined spaces vs. mining. This comparison continues to be made because people perceive that mining is dangerous, Field explains. Historically, there have been more deaths per year in mining than attributed to agricultural confined spaces. Note that this compares mining and confined spaces, not all fatalities occurring on farms. In 2019, for the first time, there were more ag confined space deaths than deaths in mines, 39 vs. 24. The trend continued in 2020, but in 2021, there were 36 mining deaths vs. 23 in confined spaces. Over the past five years, they are nearly equal, at 144 in mining vs. 142 in ag confined spaces.

State comparisons. Iowa had eight confined space cases in 2021, the most of any state. Minnesota followed with seven and Illinois with five. Illinois reported the most grain entrapment cases — those same five cases. Historically, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois, in that order, have reported the most grain entrapment cases. Field notes that’s partly because they’re among the leading Corn Belt states where more corn is stored. Plus, reporting started earlier and was more intense in early years in Indiana.

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