Cleanliness key to preventing grain explosions

By Jeremy Bernfeld (Harvest Public Media)

State investigators are still investigating the cause of the explosion at a grain elevator in Atchinson, KS, which killed six people Oct. 29.

While preliminary results from the state fire marshal’s investigation into the blast at the Bartlett Elevator may be released this week, according to the Kanas City Star, we do know that the key to keeping highly flammable grain dust in check is to keep areas with high concentrations of the dust clean.

"Grain storage facilities can reduce their risk of a grain dust explosion with good housekeeping practices to reduce grain dust levels," Leland McKinney, a grain scientist at Kansas State University, said in a news release on Kansas State’s Agricultural Experiment Station’s website.

When I spoke with McKinney, he stressed the difficulty in keeping grain elevators safe.

"Explosions have occurred when people are doing as good a job as they can," McKinney said. "Tragedies, such as the one in Atchinson, do happen.”

Grain elevator employees can try to cut their risk by using equipment to monitor dust and danger levels, McKinney said, but an explosion can be caused by something as simple as an overheated bearing.

Three of the most important factors in grain explosions, according to McKinney, are:

  • A concentration of low moisture grain dust in suspension.
  • The presence of oxygen
  • An ignition source      

Grain elevators certainly have high concentrations of low moisture grain in suspension. Obviously, there's plenty of oxygen around. That combination can make them dangerous.

The Atchinson explosion created a fireball that was seen and felt for miles, said KCUR’s Dan Verbeck, who reported on the blast. It blew out chunks of concrete and the grain elevator burned for days after the blast.

“When it’s confined, it’s just like dynamite,” Gerald Enzen, a farmer in Atchinson, told Verbeck. “It’s kind of hard to understand that, but I guess that’s the way it works.”

Grain explosions aren’t common, but according to a Kansas State study there was an average of 10.5 grain explosions per year from 1995-2005.

Verbeck's report says it’s the first fatal grain elevator explosion this year, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The six fatalities from the blast include grain elevator employees Chad Roberts, 20, Curtis Field, 21 and Ryan Federinko, 20, and John Burke, 24. Darrek Klahr, 43, and Travis Kiehl, 34,  were grain inspectors.