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Pneumat Systems' Dual-Impact BinWhip acts like a weed eater that smacks grain off the walls of bins, with the help of gravity. Image: courtesy of Pneumat Systems

Minnesota company focuses on grain elevator safety

MANKATO, Minn. — While on-farm grain entrapment deaths have grabbed headlines this year, grain elevators are not immune to the same kinds of problems. 

The Occupational Safety and Health Association in February 2020 cited Interstate Commodities, a New York-based company, with seven repeat and 10 serious safety violations for the death of Zane Fecht, 32, of Bellevue, Neb., in September 2019 at an elevator north of Fremont, Neb.

Before that happened, Joshua Stone, 29, of Rossford, Ohio, and James Heilman, 56, of Perrysburg, Ohio, died after being trapped inside a grain storage tank at The Andersons facility in Toledo, Ohio. OSHA in January 2020 cited the company with two willful and two serious violations.

Sam Cebula, general sales manager at Pneumat Systems, says whether on the farm or at an industrial site, entering a facility that holds grain without proper safety equipment is a recipe for disaster.

“Without the proper safety equipment and safety protocols, going into a bin or a silo at any point without being fully aware of what the dangers are, you’re looking at potential death,” he says. “It’s really that simple.”

Pneumat Systems, of Mankato, provides equipment for commercial ag facilities, cement plants and a number of other industries that need to keep “bulk flow moving,” Cebula explains.

The company has a BinWhip system, which Cebula compares to a large, hydraulic-powered weed eater that gets lowered from the top of bins. The whip smacks into grain stuck to the wall of bins, then gravity helps pull grain down. Other products include a BinDrill, which makes holes in bridged or plugged grain so the BinWhip can be inserted, and a Cardox CO2 Blaster, which uses a controlled release of liquid CO2 at up to 34,000 psi to break up hard materials. The company also has products for loading and unloading rail cars.

Cebula says Pneumat Systems’ products aren’t just helpful for safety; they also allow companies to reclaim sellable grain as well as storage capacity that had been wasted by the stuck grain.

Many U.S. grain companies have zero-entry policies, Cebula says. Plus, many international companies are moving in the same direction.

“Right now, we are seeing the rest of the world paying attention to confined space entry,” he says. On Wednesday, March 11, crews at Pneumat Systems were packaging a BinWhip system for delivery to Iraq, and it’s not unusual for products to go to Argentina, Brazil or anywhere else around the world.

“It’s important for all of these companies to keep their people out of harm’s way,” he says.

Pneumat Systems also has contract cleaning crews that go into elevators and clean up problems. With the wet grain from the 2019 harvest, Cebula says the crews are about five weeks out, rather than the normal three to four weeks.

A mission of safety

“Pneumat is really here because of safety,” Cebula says. “It’s our primary concern and it’s why we’re here.”

While that mission extends to promoting the use of on-farm safety protocols, Pneumat Systems’ products are aimed at commercial use. For instance, the size of the BinWhip, as well as its cost of $30,000-$50,000, makes it impractical for on-farm use.

Ken Hellevang, a professor in North Dakota State University’s Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Department, says there aren’t many products for breaking up grain after it's already there.

“There’s a lot of things on the market to put into a bin to bust up chunks as long as you install them before you put the grain in,” he says.

When it comes to grain already lodged, farmers are urged to use safety protocols and equipment and to always follow safety procedures when entering bins.