Emptying the manure pit for field application is a routine chore, but it can also be a deadly one.
A Pennsylvania dairy farmer and his two sons – ages 18 and 14 – died earlier this year in an open-air manure story incident in nearby Maryland, reports Penn State University ag safety specialist Dennis Murphy, who suggests farmers just type “Maryland manure pit deaths” in their web browser for details. The trio was found submerged in the liquid manure.
“Because there were no witnesses, there are many questions about exactly what happened,” he says. “One of these questions has to do with the role of manure gases in open-air storages: Did they play any role at all?”
“We know through research studies that manure gases and oxygen-depletion are major factors in enclosed manure pits, but I have not seen similar types of research with open-air storages. It is disturbing that safety research shortcomings are often uncovered because of tragic incidents involving loss of life,” he notes. “Another question: Where will funds for such research come from if state and federal legislators keep cutting safety research and extension funding?”
Murphy says this 48-year-old dad and his teenage sons drowned. One of the victims also had significant injury from the agitator. When the three didn’t return home to milk that evening, concerned family members traveled to the site. A tractor and the victims’ pickup truck were both still running, parked beside the two-million-gallon manure storage.
While much focus is given to injuries and fatalities that occur in “confined space” manure storages that are enclosed, such as beneath animal quarters or below-ground reception and pump-out pits, Murphy says this tragedy highlights that fatalities can also occur in non-enclosed storages, such as earthen, lined and concrete manure pits. “Non-enclosed manure storages are open to the atmosphere but still meet the definition of a ‘confined space’…due to the definition of a confined space by OSHA,” says Murphy. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s definition hinges on the space being: Large enough and so configured that a worker can enter and perform work; has limited or restricted means for entry or exit; and is not designed for continuous human occupancy.
“At times getting out of an open-air storage can be next to impossible,” says Murphy. “This difficulty is a major reason open-air storages are considered confined spaces by safety professionals.”
Murphy thinks each and every producer with an open-air manure pit, pond or above-ground tank should review the hazards:
• The thick liquid and floating crust make swimming, buoyancy or even moving around very difficult
• Steep and slippery slopes and straight sides can make getting out of manure storages difficult or impossible
• “Localized layers” of hazardous gases exist above manure surfaces - especially on hot, humid days with little or no breeze
• An increase in manure gas release from movement, agitation, removal, or addition of manure to the pit, pond or tank
• Not having sufficient oxygen to breathe if a person is “treading” in manure because of an inability to get out
• Not being able to see into depths of manure like you can with clear water
• Slow response time for adequate emergency actions because of site isolation and remoteness.
Murphy strongly advises producers to heed some safety guidelines from to keep themselves, family members and hired workers safe around open-air manure pits.
First, make sure everyone who comes near manure storage structures understands the hazards that exist, including the health effects of the various manure gases.
Install a fence around the perimeter of the open-air manure storage. Access gates should be locked to keep unauthorized personnel from entering the area. Ladders for climbing to the viewing platform on above-ground tanks should be padlocked or kept eight feet off the ground.
Place “manure drowning hazard” signs near the open-air storage area. Also place “no trespassing” signs on all sides of the storage.
If you must go into the fenced area of the open manure storage, wear a safety harness with a life line attached to a safely located solid object or anchor. This will enhance your chances of rescue. Never work alone. The second person’s role is to summon help in an emergency and assist with rescue – without entering the storage themselves. Rescue equipment, such as flotation devices and lifelines, should be available near every open manure storage area.
Move carefully around manure storages as the ground can sometimes be uneven and may cause a person to trip or stumble, Murphy warns.
Bystanders and nonessential workers should stay away from pump out or other accessible areas. There should be no horseplay near the open manure storage or pumping equipment. He also notes that explosive gas may be lurking near where agitation or pumping is occurring. No smoking, open flames or sparks should be allowed. If equipment malfunctions during agitating or pumping of the manure, shut all equipment off, and remove it from the storage before servicing or repairing.
“If you feel unsure or uncomfortable with a job near the open manure storage, step back, contact someone and review the situation before you proceed,” Murphy advises. Time perceived as lost may in the long run be time saved – to live the rest of your life.
Be prepared to call 911 in an emergency. This includes accurately describing the incident, the number of victims and giving specific directions to the emergency site.