Poisonous gases released by stored manure can cause immediate asphyxiation and death
The recent tragic deaths of three adult brothers in western Ohio — all in their 30s — who reportedly lost consciousness while performing maintenance in a manure pit, is a grim reminder of the dangers associated with manure handling, according to an extension specialist in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.
The Aug. 10 incident — in which Gary, Todd, and Brad Wuebaker became trapped in the pit while working — serves as a warning that could help prevent others from becoming victims in manure storage and handling accidents, noted Robert Meinen, senior extension associate in the college’s Department of Animal Science.
“Considering the amount of time producers and professional manure handlers spend working with manure, these incidents can be viewed as relatively infrequent occurrences,” Meinen said. “However, in working with the manure handling industry, I have come to realize that many instances of falls, loss of consciousness, and livestock deaths go unreported.”
Meinen cited a recent article published in the Journal of Agromedicine by researchers at Purdue University that summarized injuries and fatalities associated with manure storage, handling, and transport. The study confirmed the lack of accident documentation, especially in scenarios where life was not lost.
Asphyxiation, primarily from hydrogen sulfide intoxication, is a leading cause of severe injury and death associated with manure handling. In another study, Purdue researchers looked at 91 deaths and 21 severe injuries related to manure-generated gas from 1974 to 2004. They reported that 34 percent of the gas exposure deaths occurred during repair or maintenance and 22 percent of deaths were among those attempting rescue.
“Clearly, performing maintenance and attempting rescue of another person are very dangerous activities,” Meinen said. “It appears that the three brothers in Ohio were performing some type of manure pump maintenance and were victims of gas exposure.”
It was unclear how long the brothers were in the pit before first responders arrived.
Some research suggests that 20 percent to 25 percent of manure gas fatalities involve young people, with incidents often claiming more than one victim. Contributing factors include youths’ lack of awareness of basic storage and handling hazards, lack of appropriate safety equipment, failure to comply with safe confined-space practices, and lack of supervision or training.
Meinen identified recurring themes common to many reports of manure-related incidents that farmers should keep in mind when they are handling manure or near storage facilities:
- The most dangerous manure gas is hydrogen sulfide, which can cause immediate asphyxiation at high levels. “Some of today’s economic imports to the farm, such as distiller’s grains or gypsum bedding, increase sulfur levels in manure,” he said. “Microbial degradation of sulfur compounds in storage leaves hydrogen sulfide as a byproduct.”
- Repair and equipment retrieval is dangerous. “It’s tempting to enter a confined area for a quick job. Do not do that,” Meinen warned. “Remove equipment for maintenance, and retrieve dropped items with a magnet or hook.”
- Rescuers are at risk and often end up as victims. “Never go in to try to retrieve someone without proper rescue equipment,” Meinen said. “That’s easy to say, but perhaps harder to adhere to when a family member or co-worker is in trouble. In this situation it is better to be an unsung hero by operating in a manner that minimizes risk and avoids these situations in the first place. Don’t become a statistic.”
- Make choices for children. “Adults should take precautions to educate and protect children who live on or visit a farm, and this means providing child-proof barricades to manure storage and handling areas,” he advised. “Prevent entry and falls for everyone.”
- Liquid manures are more dangerous than solid manures. Nonetheless, solid manure systems can he hazardous as well. “I know two local men who have lost consciousness while moving poultry broiler litter,” Meinen said.
- Complacency kills. “It’s not unusual in fatality situations to hear things like, ‘He’s gone in there to unclog that pump a hundred times.’ Make safety your routine.”
- Ventilate! All manure is organic material that is undergoing microbial degradation, Meinen explained, and gases are a byproduct of these microbial processes. Agitation and movement of manure in storages can release gases at dangerous levels. “Keep air moving through confined spaces and animal housing areas,” he said.
- You can work yourself to death. It may run counter to farmers’ work ethic, but take a break and clear all workers from the area at the first sign of gas exposure or dangerous gas levels, Meinen cautioned.
- Use monitors. Gas monitors, which can be worn on a belt, provide an alarm to warn you of invisible dangers. A number of vendors sell or rent reliable monitors, Meinen said.
Meinen noted that more information related to manure handling and storage safety can be found on the Penn State Extension website by searching “manure safety.”