Quick poll: have you or anyone you know ever fallen from a grain bin ladder? If you can answer “no” to that question, count yourself very lucky, and you’re likely in the minority of Canadian farmers.
“At literally every tradeshow, we talk to a dozen people who have fallen off a grain bin. Pretty much everyone knows someone who’s fallen. It’s not a small risk,” says Jesse Kope, a marketing manager with Northern Strands, Canada’s only manufacturer of ag-specific fall protection.
Why it matters: Falls are the No. 1 lost-time accident on farms and even a small fall could put daily farm functioning at risk.
“The size of grain bins has exploded in the last generation. It’s not uncommon to see 30-, 40-, 50-, 60-foot-high bins,” says Robert Gobeil, an agricultural health and safety specialist with the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association. “Climbing these high bins without any protection can be incredibly dangerous.”
While deaths from grain bin falls are — thankfully — uncommon, even a relatively small fall can translate into an injury that limits one’s ability to work and risks daily farm functioning, and can force a farm into dangerous financial territory.
“There are still a lot of mom-and-pop operations in Canadian agriculture. They generally don’t have a lot of extra manpower. If it’s the producer himself who falls off the bin, then what? An injury can ruin their season or worse,” says Gobeil.
Many farmers don’t realize they are breaking safety laws each time they climb their bins. In fact, though the details of safety legislation vary from province to province, each province requires fall protection any time an individual works above a certain height — 10 feet in most provinces. This is because, despite what many farmers believe, agriculture is not exempt from the Occupational Health and Safety rules that govern all workplaces.
The traditional stumbling block for safety legislation to be effective, particularly in agriculture, has been enforcement. That, however, is starting to change.
“Many producers are unaware that provincial enforcement has the authority to conduct an inspection of their operation at any time. This is starting to happen more often in the agricultural sector, so this can create some interesting situations if producers are not prepared,” says Gobeil.
“The thing to remember is that provincial enforcement officers are not there to shut you down; their primary job is to educate producers and their employees of their roles in regards to safety. They want to help ensure that everyone goes home the same way they woke up that day.”
Those who do not provide adequate fall protection to employees could be liable for any resulting injury. Still, that shouldn’t be the main — or the only — reason to consider fall protection.
“If I have someone working for me or under my supervision and can help prevent them from getting hurt, or if I can make sure I’m going to get home at the end of the day without injury, you better believe I’d do it. It’s the ethical thing to do,” says Gobeil.
Many farmers mistakenly assume that a ladder cage provides adequate fall protection. In fact, a cage may do more damage than good.
“Me? I’d rather climb a ladder with no cage than with a cage,” says Gobeil. “First, there’s a false sense of security from a ladder cage, which can mean people are less careful on the ladder. Second, if you fall, you’re kind of ping-ponging off the cage. The cage itself can be the source of abrasions, bruises, dislocations.”
Government legislation is starting to change: depending on where you live, a ladder cage may no longer be considered acceptable fall protection. Likewise, many grain bin manufacturers are moving away from cages.
Other safety options
A simple and inexpensive improvement over a straight, vertical ladder is a ladder with one or more landings set at acceptable fall distances. The landings are guard railed and, in addition to providing a welcome break when climbing, serve to limit the vertical drop of a fall.
“If you’ve got a landing every 10 feet, you might not need fall protection,” says Gobeil. “And, it’s a much more comfortable climb, especially now that the average age of Canadian farmers is fairly high.”
For those willing to invest more in safety, another option is the increasingly popular spiral staircase. Spiral staircases wrap around the exterior of the bin, are guarded with a handrail, and make climbing much easier and more comfortable. Spiral staircases can be retrofitted onto existing bins and are a recommended option on new bins from virtually all suppliers.
Recently, an effective, affordable option borrowed from the construction industry made its debut on Canadian grain bins. Bin Safe, created by Northern Strands, is the only agriculture-specific fall protection system currently available. The system consists of an easy-to-wear harness connected to a shock absorbing lanyard, which attaches via the “traveller” to a steel cable that runs from the bottom rung of the ladder up the side of the bin to the roof panels. The traveller can move up or down the cable as the user ascends or descends the ladder, but in the event of a fall, instantly locks to arrest the fall.
“We recognized that a fall protection system needed to be extremely easy to use, inexpensive, and very effective, otherwise farmers weren’t going to use it. So that’s what we made. You just clip on, which takes about five seconds. Then as you move up the ladder, you move the traveller with you, which takes a couple pounds of pressure to move. If you do happen to fall, Bin Safe stops the fall immediately. We’ve completed a number of drop tests with weights and dummies mimicking falls; tested it in every way we can. It stops the fall immediately every time,” says Kope.
“Falls are the No. 1 lost-time accident on farms. For a really inexpensive cost, you can save yourself a lot of heartache.”
Pull tested to 5,000 pounds, the system is universal to any grain bin (smooth or galvanized) and takes just 15 to 30 minutes to install. Bin Safe has won numerous awards in the three years it has been on the market, including the Ag in Motion Innovative Project award and the 2018 Agri-Trade Equipment Expo’s Ag Innovations Award.
Smooth and galvanized wall bin kits, which include all grain bin fall protection system hardware for a single bin, range from $165 to $230. The user kit, which includes a four-foot lanyard, fall protection harness and rope grab, is about $390. One user kit will service all bins.
“A bin fall protection system is an awesome, awesome concept. It takes what is already existing in other industries and applies it to agriculture,” says Gobeil.
Kope and Gobeil are both pleased to see a move, albeit a slow move, toward more safety in agriculture.
“Even over just the last few years, safety is becoming more of priority on Canadian farms,” says Kope. “I think it’s the younger generation of farmers who have worked off-farm in mining or construction, where using fall protection is just the way it is. They ask, ‘why shouldn’t we be safe farming too?’”
Six safety tips for climbing bins
Virtually all falls from grain bins are preventable. Here’s how:
- Inspect ladders regularly (preferably as part of a monthly whole farm safety inspection) for broken, bent or wiggly parts. If you find a problem, post a “do not use” sign on the bottom of the ladder until the repair is complete.
- Take the seconds necessary to clean dirt or mud from a ladder before using. As for ice or frost, either clean it off extremely well or skip the climb until it thaws.
- Know what you’re doing: when using fall protection, ensure it’s properly fitted and adequately tight.
- When climbing any ladder, maintain three points of contact with the ladder at all times.
- Hands are for climbing only: never carry anything in your hands. Hoist supplies up once you’re at the top, or attach tools to a bag, belt or backpack.
- Value paperwork. Filling out a hazard assessment form can help you think critically about safety (and can provide proof of due diligence in the event of any issue).
Taking a few moments to regularly think about safety is the single best investment you can make in your farm business.