Burstall, Saskatchewan is mourning the loss of two members of their small community due to a tragic accident which occurred on Monday, 31 August 2015.
The two were working in a grain harvesting environment when something went horribly wrong, leading to the deaths of a 62-year-old man and his 14-year-old grandson. This is an awful scenario and it is hard to imagine the grief being felt by the families and the tight-knit community.
It is also a grim reminder of just how dangerous the industry can be and what a threat engulfment can pose to workers. There are numerous lessons to be learned here; from that of understanding the hectic rush to harvest to the education and protection of young workers but this post aims simply to educate on the hazard that is engulfment and just how quickly it can strike.
"Engulfment" is defined by the US department of Labor in their OSHA definitions as: "the surrounding and effective capture of a person by a liquid or finely divided (flowable) solid substance that can be aspirated to cause death by filling or plugging the respiratory system or that can exert enough force on the body to cause death by strangulation, constriction, or crushing."
Just the definition is enough to impart a chilling message and the statistics surrounding engulfment injuries and incidents are absolutely astounding. According to a 2013 post, also by the US Department of Labor, "in the past 50 years, more than 900 cases of grain engulfment have been reported with a fatality rate of 62 percent," citing researchers from Purdue University in Indiana. In 2010 alone, at least 26 U.S. workers were killed in grain engulfments along with hundreds of reported injuries.
Statistics from the Canadian Agricultural Injury Reporting (CAIR) show that from 1990-2008, 46 workers died of asphyxiation from grain or soil, with many of these incidents occurring on family-owned farms or storage vessels, which fall outside of normal safety regulations.
Another frightening statistic shows that between 1990 and 2008, almost 250 children under 15 years of age were killed in agricultural incidents. Between 2000 and 2008, the number of child fatalities per year fell to an average of 10 deaths per year but, in cases involving children and engulfment incidents, approximately 70% are fatalities.
So what makes engulfment so dangerous?
There are many factors but the speed at which dangerous situations develop is a huge one. According to many studies, it takes between 3 and 20 seconds to become trapped and complete engulfment can happen within 60 seconds. The majority of deaths occur due to suffocation (either from the material itself blocking the airway or by the squeezing of the body) but crush injuries and mechanical complications can also occur. Add to this the risk of atmospheric factors such as fermenting grains or exhaust fumes which can introduce toxic chemicals such as carbon dioxide into the mix and the situation becomes even more bleak.
To complicate matters, these incidents can often occur in rural areas where help is not readily available and dedicated rescuers are hard to find. In fact, similar to atmospheric incidents involving confined spaces, at least half of all fatalities in these cases are would-be rescuers who attempt to save the initial victim becoming trapped or overcome themselves.
According to the Canadian Farm Association, once a person is buried waist-deep, it requires up to 400lbs of force to remove them from that situation, more than enough to permanently damage the spinal column, resulting in catastrophic injuries that last a lifetime even if the rescue effort is successful.
How do we prevent engulfment incidents?
While there are many areas which have invested in rescue training and gear and who frequently drill to ensure they are able to respond in an emergency, the single biggest recommendation is to increase awareness and to practice safe work habits. Grain related incidents almost always involve "flowing grain" and can happen in a range of environments and situations. Grain pulling from a silo creates a conical flow which will pull a worker in extremely quickly. Grain that has hung up and formed a wall can easily collapse, spilling mountains of material down all at once or a stacked pile can move in an unexpected way, pinning the worker and covering them up. Knowing this, simple common-sense approaches to safety can be utilized. Do not walk onto flowing grain without employing safety precautions including a harness, lifeline and method of retrieval. When trying to unstick grain "bridges," use a tool to reach it from a safe location and, whenever possible, avoid being in a space with any potential for engulfment or the creation of a dangerous atmosphere.
Educate yourself, educate your fellow workers and please educate your children if any of them are to be working in or around areas with the potential to become hazardous. The Canadian Agriculture Safety Association hosts "Safety Days" which are specifically targeted to educate children and young workers about hazards associated with agriculture and interested communities can apply to host their own.
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