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Extension educator: Risk of gas a chief hazard of silo entrapment

When working with silos, don't work alone, says Jeff Semler, who specializes in agriculture and natural resources for the University of Maryland Extension in Washington County

July 16, 2013|By KAUSTUV BASU | kaustuv.basu@herald-mail.com
  • Concerned neighbors watch as rescue personnel maneuver to rescue a man injured inside a silo on a Lehmans Mill Road farm Tuesday.
By Kevin G. Gilbert / Staff Photographer

Deadly gases, a lack of oxygen and temperatures well above 100 degrees are some of the factors that could make silo entrapments such as the one that occurred Tuesday on Lehmans Mill Road extremely hazardous, according to experts.

Jeff Semler, an Extension educator specializing in agriculture and natural resources for the University of Maryland Extension in Washington County, said one of the chief hazards in silo accidents is the risk of gas — in particular, carbon dioxide.

“You can get unconscious very fast due to the lack of oxygen,” Semler said.

“The heat can exacerbate the problem,” he said, noting that the temperature in a closed silo can get well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Of course, if you have a bad injury, you will not be able to climb up,” Semler said.

“In most cases, people work alone in silos and somebody doesn’t come looking for you until they miss you,” Semler said.

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Typical injuries in silo accidents include puncture wounds, lacerations and head injuries, he said.

On its website, the National Safety Council’s Agricultural Division notes that silo gas is a hazard formed after chopped silage — or forage plants — is loaded into a silo. As part of the natural fermentation process, gases such at nitrogen dioxide and carbon dioxide are released.

Nitrogen dioxide is toxic, while carbon dioxide displaces the oxygen supply in a silo, the organization said on its website.

Semler said that based on what he saw in news photographs, the silo at the scene of Tuesday’s accident appeared to be a “concrete stave silo” made of concrete tiles with metal bands that go around them.

Someone working in a farm would need to go inside a silo when one is preparing to fill it, or when getting ready to unload it, Semler said. Another reason would be to maintain the equipment inside.

Inside a silo is a piece of machinery called the unloader, which blows the silage out through a chute to feed cows and other livestock.

Semler compared the function of an unloader to a snowblower, with the unloader blowing out silage instead of snow.

Some silo accidents can be prevented by making sure the structure is well-ventilated, Semler said.

“Don’t work alone,” was another tip from Semler. “ ... Always take the precaution you would take while working in heights.”

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