Confined Space Entry: Grain Bins and Risk

October 12, 2021

Harvest time is upon us and for many that brings exposures associated with Confined Space Entry of grain bins. Three of the hazards associated with grain bins include the sweep auger, grain bridging (hardening of the top layer) and grain dust explosions. History has told countless stories of employee deaths associated with all three of these hazards. 

Confined Spaces are defined as any space that 1) has limited means of egress (entry/exit), 2) are not designed for human occupancy, and 3) where we must enter to conduct some type of work.  Some typical confined spaces include bins, pits, silos, manholes, etc.

Permit Required Confined Spaces are those confined spaces that also has one or more of the following;  converging walls that can trap you, loose fill materials that can engulf you (grain), mechanical equipment (sweep augers), toxic air contaminants or any other safety hazards. Confined spaces having one or more of these additional hazards should be considered a “Permit Required Confined Space”.

As with many hazardous operations, entry into a confined space should be organized and documented. A sample permit is available on the OSHA website (OSHA.gov), and it can be modified to meet your specific operations. The OSHA standard 29 CFR 1910.146 addresses confined space entry, while 29 CFR 1910.272 address grain bin hazards.

The secret to a successful confined space entry is patience. The permit-required confined space entry guidelines state that there are three different job functions that needs to be identified. This includes the Entrant (the person going in the confined space), the Attendant (the person monitoring the confined space), and the Supervisor (the person overseeing the activity). Each of these job functions requires that the person conducting the job function is focused on the activities being conducted, and emergency procedures in the event that something goes wrong.

OSHA estimates that 60% of all deaths associated with confined spaces are to the “would be” rescuers.  Thus, it is vitally important to discuss emergency non-entry rescue procedures prior to entering a confined space. Typically, this includes a tripod and body harness for vertical confined spaces. The entrant and attendant should both understand how and when the confined space entry should stop in an emergency situation. Additionally consideration should be given to establishing clear communication protocols and identifying what an emergency situation is when communication is lost. 

Taking a minute to review the operations being conducted and the potential hazards goes a long way to reducing employee exposures to death or serious injuries. As with other safety efforts, practice PACE.  Pause, Assess, Consult, then Engage.  If you have any questions, reach out to your MMA team to learn more.