Tubes for the trapped: Minnesota man's product aimed at grain bin rescue
REYNOLDS, N.D. -- Seeing men die in an ugly fashion, buried in grain bins, pushed Dale Ekdahl to do something.
The Elbow Lake, Minn., man, retired from a career in the Army, started building and selling "grain bin rescue tubes."
Last week, Paul Coppin, general manager of Reynolds (N.D.) United Co-op invited Ekdahl to talk to local firefighters and elevator employees.
Ekdahl's "tubes" are really 18-inch-wide curved lengths of shiny aluminum, with ladder steps welded on the outside.
"They are lighter and more durable," than plywood and steel tubes often used in grain bin rescues, he said. At 18 inches wide, "they will fit in the top grain bins."
The sections are fastened together, into a complete cylinder that can be stepped down -- or pounded with a hand-driven hammer with hockey pucks as cushions and sound-dampeners -- up to four feet into the wheat, beans or corn around a victim.
Or, three panels can make a half-circle to enclose someone trapped against a bin wall.
Firefighters helped him design the tubes, Ekdahl said. He received a patent this summer.
Five panels inside a waterproof bag cost $900 and the slide-hammer is $200; so two sets with one hammer, is a cool two grand, Ekdahl said.
"My two sons are busy all day every day welding these things," he said. "Keeps them out of trouble."
Entrapments on the rise
Ekdahl says the problem is increasing.
According to a study by Purdue University researchers released earlier this year, the number of "grain entrapments" reported nationwide has steadily increased the past decade, from 19 in 2001to 51 in 2010.
Last year, Minnesota trailed only Illinois in the number of grain entrapments, with eight.
Two men died in Minnesota corn bins in 2009; one was 17, the other 75.
In February 2010, a 47-year-old man was rescued after being trapped eight hours in a corn bin in Farmington, Minn. Ropes and plywood barriers were used to rescue the elevator employee.
In June, Franklin Samuel Scott, 22, Fargo, died after being buried beneath tons of corn in a 4-million-bushel warehouse belonging to Dakota Ag in Kindred, N.D., which is about 20 miles southwest of Fargo. It took nine hours to recover his body.
The common denominator of corn in the above incidents is instructive, Coppin and Ekdahl said.
There's no doubt there are more grain entrapments as corn production has increased, Coppin said.
Corn takes more bin space than wheat or soybeans, because it yields four or five times the bushels per acre.
Plus, it is harvested later, usually with more moisture content, than wheat and beans, so it's more often "out of condition" in bins, needing more handling and acting more erratically, piling up, crusting and "ridging" due to moisture and freezing.
North Dakota farmers have tripled corn production is the past decade, driven by hardier seed varieties and high prices.
But every grain can be dangerous in bins that seem to be getting bigger all the time.
OSHA looks at prevention
The Occupational Safety and Health Agency, in fact, emphasized grain bin safety this year nationwide, looking not only at grain entrapments but at avoiding explosions caused by grain dust.
Besides the loss of life, grain entrapments can be costly.
North Central Co-op, based in Ipswich, S.D., west of Aberdeen, was fined $378,000 earlier this year by OSHA for a 2010 entrapment in which an employee was rescued.
The co-op, through negotiation with OSHA that included complying with recommended training and structural changes, got the fined whittled down to $100,000, the manager announced in the co-op's newsletter recently.
Tom Deutscher, director of the regional OSHA office in Bismarck, oversaw the North Central incident last year.
He sees prevention, not rescue, as the key.
"From our perspective, we want grain elevators put in the position where they never have to use one of those," Deutscher said of rescue tubes such as Ekdahl's. "They need to have certain programs and training in place."
Making sure grain elevators don't ignore OSHA rules will save lifes, he said.
"We find usually those types of violations are what caused the engulfment," Deutscher said.
Ekdahl said time is of the essence, especially when it can take rural firefighters 20 minutes or more just to get to the scene of a bin rescue.
"You know the clock is ticking," he said.
Making the wrong move in a grain bin can endanger the victim, as well as rescuers, by starting the grain moving, he said.
That's why he keeps working to improve his product, and encourages fire departments to train firefighters in grain bin rescues, just like other fire training exercises.
There are signs it can work.
The deadliness of the entrapments has gone down over the decades, as the numbers have gone up.
From 1964-2005, three-fourths of all grain entrapments reported resulted in fatalities, Purdue researchers said. It's more like half since then; last year, 26 of the 51 reported grain entrapments resulted in deaths.
However, the Purdue report says many grain entrapments, especially on farms, likely are not reported. The researchers estimate there may be 20 to 30 percent more entrapments than are reported.
"We don't want to lose anybody," Coppin told the firefighters and employees in Reynolds last week. "I want you guys armed."
Coppin bought two sets of the rescue tubes for the local Reynolds fire department. He told firefighters from Thompson and Northwood, N.D., that once they decide how many rescue tube sets are needed in the region, "They will have a set."
By early next year, Ekdahl plans to complete construction of a grain bin rescue training center in Elbow Lake, funded in part by grain companies.
He already has 750 people signed up for training and hopes to have regular sessions every week.
"It will be the only one in the country," he said.