Farm Medic

A farmer is trapped in a silo, overcome by toxic fumes. A farm hand is smothered by a grain cave-in or stuck inside a storage bin. A tractor rolls over on top of a worker.

Each of these accidents is an everyday possibility on a working farm, and all of them present special challenges for today's emergency responders.

A number of the structures that are found on a farm may be considered confined spaces. One of the more prominent farm structures that is seen in many areas of the country is the silo. The silo can be constructed of many different materials such as steel, concrete, tile or wood. Its purpose is to store feed for livestock and to keep that feed, or "silage," in good condition with a high nutritional value. After cutting the silage, the natural fermentation process begins and by controlling this process in storage the farmer can estimate the food value the herd will receive.

Photo by Nick Astarb and Joe Bush
Firefighters from the Weyers Cave, VA, Volunteer Fire Department and members of the Bridge-water, VA, Volunteer Rescue Squad use airbags to lift a farm tractor and remove the body of a farm hand killed in an accident. The man was raking hay on a steep hillside when the tractor rolled onto him, pinning him between the hood and the ground. He died instantly of chest injuries. Many rural responders are specially trained to mitigate farm accidents.

Two basic types of silos, conventional and oxygen-limiting, have atmospheres that are not meant to be entered. However, due to the type of construction and nature of operation of a conventional silo, the farmer is required to enter it periodically. This is where danger may occur for the farmer and the emergency responders.

Unlike an emergency responder, a farmer is not required to abide by confined space regulations. That means the farmer may not have posted warning signs or made the needed equipment available for entering the silo safely. Recall that the silage undergoes a natural process of fermentation. That process produces a variety of gases that can be life threatening to farmer and responder alike, depending on when entry is made.

A conventional silo uses an unloader mechanism that may need to be worked on or inspected periodically. The farmer enters the exterior chute of the silo and ascends a ladder into the top of the silo. This may be 50 to 100 feet off the ground, depending on the quantity of silage in the silo, and this is where the farmer can be overcome by one of the gases, become entangled or injured in the unloader mechanism, or experience a medical emergency such as a strained back.

As an emergency responder, you arrive on the scene and are told that the patient is "up that thing." The instant that you decide enter the chute, you are under confined space protocols. Are you qualified to enter this structure? Have you been trained in both confined space entry and in silo rescue? The new confined space regulations were designed to save lives; if followed, they do.

Monitor the atmosphere before entering the silo. The fermentation of the silage gives off toxic gases, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and nitrogen tetroxide. Which gases that may be present depends on many factors and variables, but the fact that they can be there is enough to make sure that the atmosphere is tested.

Does the farmer always test before entering? From my experience, I must say that atmospheric testing before entering a silo is not universally practiced by the farming community. Many farmers, however, will turn on the silo filler blower for 15 to 30 minutes before entering to displace any lingering gas. Normally, gas is not a problem because a farmer usually knows when it is safe to enter a silo but as an emergency responder how do you know when entry is safe? Who is likely to be your best source of information on the farm? The farmer and that may be the same person who's in the silo awaiting help.

What other confined space areas are there on the farm? Silos normally go with a dairy farm, and other structures on a dairy farm fall into our topic area. Let's look at the storage areas that may be found on dairy farm and at the dairy process.

On a dairy farm there are cows that need to be fed. These cows produce a product, in this case milk, and a byproduct, manure. We have already talked about silos as storage facilities for livestock feed but there are also other structures on this end of the food chain. Grain bins, for example, also are used to store and feed and represent a unique type of rescue and confined space entry. This year already has been a very hard one on grain bins, with fatalities of grain bin operators and fire personnel. Besides contending with the possibility of a toxic atmosphere in a confined space, the emergency responder faces the possibility of being engulfed by the grain and suffocated.

Tractor rollovers and material collapses or cave-ins are possible types of emergencies in the area of feed storage.

Let's follow the process of milk production and point out potential dangers. The milk is collected into a bulk storage tank another confined space, usually located in a building next to the barn. Is milk going to kill you? Not unless you drown in it. That bulk tank, however, needs periodic cleaning; sometimes, depending on many factors, someone must go inside the tank to do the cleaning. Think about the presence of cleaning agents in a confined area and their possible effects on a worker. Go to a dairy farm and observe the location of the bulk tank and its accessibility to your rescue team.

Frequently, the access to the bulk tank is not in an area where the typical tripod rigging can be assembled. Also, entry with self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) will probably not be an option. Do you use or have available a supplied air system for this type of entry? And while you're in the milking area, be careful of the wet floor.

We've fed the cows and we've milked them. Now, we look for the waste product of the milk production process. Waste management systems vary considerably. Some small farms, generally in northern climates, use a system that sweeps the stall areas and deposits the waste, manure and straw into a wagon that will then spread that combination onto the fields. Larger operations tend to use a system that stores the waste in liquid form under the barn floor in areas (confined spaces) that can have a capacity of over 1 million gallons. From these storage systems the manure may be pumped to a series of outside ponds or to aboveground storage tanks capable of storing over 1 million gallons themselves.

Manure storage means more toxic gases ammonia, carbon dioxide, methane and hydrogen sulfide. Why would anyone enter such an environment? Because these systems may contain mechanical agitation systems that need repair or maintenance or perhaps an animal has fallen in and needs rescue. The system may have been pumped out and the repair or maintenance was to be completed at this time.

This is where some of the most tragic incidents relating to farm fatalities have taken place, and they are not uncommon. A family member enters an underbarn/underground system and becomes overcome by a gas. The person collapses and is observed by another family member, who enters the system to make a rescue but becomes overcome. Now, two victims are lying next to each other in the bottom of the storage system. Other family members are standing there, asking for your help, and you have arrived before the rescue truck and all of your specialized equipment.

How do you, the emergency responder, enter this toxic environment? You don't not without the atmospheric monitoring, supplied breathing apparatus, rope and a full body harness that all enter the equation of survival. In separate incidents, three and five family members were all killed at the same time because they thought that they could enter such environments without safety equipment. Other manure systems include open ponds or lagoons that present their own particular hazards.

Back to the cows and their care and upkeep. They need to drink water and where does that come from on the farm? Don't overlook a well somewhere on the farm. There could be an old hand-dug well or a newly drilled well. Any space that a person or child can get into could fall within the confined space protocols, especially a dug well.

There have been cases in which wells were sealed and well maintained but the atmosphere within them was below the acceptable minimum entry level. One case in upstate New York involved a well that had an oxygen-poor atmosphere when first opened. A person was spotted lying at the bottom of the well and a rescue operation commenced. The idea that this was a confined space rescue, however, didn't occur to the rescue personnel at the time. Only after an investigation weeks later did the well's atmospheric condition become an issue. In this incident, the time between the opening of the well until the rescue started apparently was sufficient for purging the oxygen-poor atmosphere. Numerous times after the incident, the well has always given an oxygen-deficient reading upon removal of the well cover. This happened years before the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) addressed the confined space issue, and demonstrates why the guidelines were developed.

David Oliver is lead instructor for the Farmedic program at Alfred, NY, State College.