By Scott Hall
Agriculture is one of the most dangerous industries to work in when it comes to injuries and fatalities in the work place. In 2013, 23.3 fatalities per 100,000 workers were reported in the agriculture industry alone. Although no shortage of dangerous jobs exists in agriculture, one of the more hazardous areas to work in or near is the manure pit. This is a hazard many farm workers and family members can be exposed to, specifically the gases given off, and, if proper safety measures are neglected, death can result from exposure.
Several deadly manure pit accidents have occurred this year. In one case, a 16-year-old boy was spreading manure and stopped the tractor to enter the empty manure tank. He was found later, unconscious, and taken to the hospital where he died later that day.
Another accident occurred while a beef producer was agitating an outdoor manure pit - a task he had performed many other times. The weather conditions that day were calm; low-lying fog and the lack of wind prevented the methane gas from dissipating. He was later found dead along with 16 head of cattle.
If you don’t take proper safety precautions to ensure a safe working environment, the gases the manure gives off, at high concentrations, will decrease the amount of usable oxygen and cause asphyxiation and death. As these cases show, your animals are also at risk from the hazardous manure pit gases.
The two main gases of concern are hydrogen sulfide and methane:
- Hydrogen sulfide (H2S), at low concentrations, has a “rotten egg” odor. At higher, more dangerous levels, people can no longer sense the odor of hydrogen sulfide. At high levels, hydrogen sulfide will cause unconsciousness and, eventually, death.
- Methane (CH4), at high levels, does not have an odor, but it is extremely flammable and explosive. It also displaces oxygen, causing similar symptoms as hydrogen sulfide and death.
Any time individuals are working near manure storage areas, they should assume that hydrogen sulfide and methane are present until it is proven otherwise. The only method to detect these gases is to use appropriate, calibrated monitors designed to detect these specific gases.
A typical four-gas monitor is used to detect both hydrogen sulfide and methane in confined spaces and it tells the workers if the atmosphere is safe to enter or work near it. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines all manure pits, tanks and other storage areas as confined spaces. A confined space entry (CSE) program and procedure are required to be in place and properly used if entry is required.
Components of a CSE program include:
- A confined space entry permit.
- A calibrated gas monitor that detects expected gases or gases known to be present. This typically includes oxygen and explosive gases (methane, hydrogen sulfide and carbon monoxide).
- Proper training of all individuals that will enter and control access to the space.
- Proper equipment and rescue services that can respond in the event of an emergency.
- An emergency response plan.
It is important to note “holding your breath” is not an acceptable safety measure to enter a hazardous environment or confined space. Also, never enter a manure storage area or confined space until it is properly ventilated and the gas concentrations are deemed safe enough for entry, even in somebody falls unconscious.
If you have any more questions or concerns, please email or call me at 608.250.4282.
About the author: Scott Hall is the Vita Plus safety director and works to strengthen safety efforts and initiatives at all Vita Plus facilities and trucking operations. He earned his bachelor’s degree in electronics engineering technology from DeVry Institute of Technology and later earned a master’s degree from Central Missouri State University in industrial safety management. After serving in the Navy for six years, he worked in a variety of construction, manufacturing, and engineering safety specialist and manager roles. He has more than 20 years of experience in writing safety procedures, overseeing compliance with occupational safety programs and employee safety training.