Farm Medic

David Oliver provides an overview of farm accidents and the challenges they present.


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...


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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.

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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.

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