Several plants in the grass family, including wheat, rye, barley, oats, corn, rice, sorghum and millet, are valuable agricultural commodities, representing the largest effort in production agriculture. Grains provide a concentrated form of carbohydrates and are an important source of food for animals and humans.
In the human diet, grains make up about 60% of the calories and 55% of the protein, and are used for food as well as beverages. Bread is the most commonly recognized food product made from grains, although grains are also important in the production of beer and liquor. Grain is a basic ingredient in the distillation of neutral spirits that produce liquors with the taste and aroma of grain. Grains also are used to make feed for animals, including pets, working animals and animals raised in the production of meat products for human consumption.
Grain production can be traced to the beginning of civilization. In 1996, world production of cereal grains was 2,003,380,000 tonnes. This volume has increased more than 10% since the mid-1980s (FAO 1997).
Three of the major grains produced for their oil, also called oilseeds, are soybean, rapeseed and sunflower. Although ten different types of oilseed crops exist, these three account for the majority of the market, with soybean as the leader. Virtually all oilseeds are crushed and processed to produce vegetable oils and high-protein meals. Much of the vegetable oil is used as salad or cooking oils, and meal is used predominantly in animal feeds. World oilseed production in 1996 was 91,377,790 tonnes, almost a 41% increase since 1986 (FAO 1997).
The production of grains and oilseeds is affected by regional factors such as weather and geography. Dry soils and environments restrict corn production, while moist soils deter wheat production. Temperature, precipitation, soil fertility and topography also affect the type of grain or oilseed that can be successfully produced in an area.
For production of grain and oilseed crops, work falls into four areas: seed bed preparation and planting, harvest, storage and transportation of the crop to market or processing facilities. In modern agriculture, some of these processes have changed completely, but other processes have changed little since early civilization. However, the mechanization of agriculture has created new situations and safety issues.
Hazards and Their Prevention
All tools used in grain harvest—from complex combines to the simple scythe—have one aspect in common: they are hazardous. Harvest tools are aggressive; they are designed to cut, chew or chop plant materials placed into them. These tools do not discriminate between a crop and a person. Various mechanical hazards associated with grain harvesting include shear-point, pull-in, crush-point, entanglement, wrap-point and pinch-point. A combine pulls in cornstalks at a rate of 3.7 metres per second (m/s), too quickly for humans to avoid entanglement, even with a normal reaction time. Augers and PTO units used to move grain, rotate and have wrapping speeds of 3 m/s and 2 m/s, respectively, and also pose an entanglement hazard.
Agricultural workers also can experience noise-induced hearing loss from large-horsepower machinery and equipment used in crop production. Axial-vane fans that force heated air through a bin or storage structure to dry grain can generate noise levels of 110 dBA or more. Since grain-drying units often are located near living quarters and are operated continuously throughout a season, they often result in substantial hearing loss in farmworkers as well as family members over long periods of time. Other sources of noise that can contribute to hearing loss are machinery such as tractors, combines and conveying equipment, and grain moving through a gravity spout.
Agricultural workers also can be exposed to significant suffocation hazards by engulfment either in flowing grain or collapsing grain surfaces. A person caught in grain is almost impossible to rescue because of the tremendous weight of grain. Workers can prevent engulfment in flowing grain by always turning off all power sources to the unloading and transporting equipment before they enter an area and locking shut all gravity flow gates. Engulfment in a collapsed grain surface is difficult to prevent, but workers can avoid the situation by knowing the history of the storage structure and the grain it contains. All workers should follow confined-space entry procedures for physical engulfment hazards when working with grain.
During the harvest, storage and transportation of grains and oilseeds, agricultural workers are exposed to dusts, spores, mycotoxins and endotoxins that can be harmful to the respiratory system. Biologically active dust is capable of producing irritation and/or allergic, inflammatory or infectious responses in the lungs. Workers can avoid or reduce their exposure to dust, or wear personal protective equipment such as mechanical filter respirators or air-supplied respirators in dusty environments. Some handling and storage systems minimize the creation of dust, and additives such as vegetable oils can keep dust from becoming airborne.
In some conditions during storage, grain can spoil and emit gases that pose a suffocation hazard. Carbon dioxide (CO2) can collect above a grain surface to displace oxygen, which can cause impairment in workers if oxygen levels drop below 19.5%. Mechanical filter respirators are useless in these situations.
Another hazard is the potential for fires and explosions that can occur when grains or oilseeds are stored or handled. Dust particles that become airborne when grain is moved create an atmosphere ripe for a powerful blast. Only an ignition source is needed, such as an overheated bearing or a belt rubbing against a housing component. The biggest hazards exist at large port elevators or inland community elevators where huge volumes of grain are handled. Regular preventive maintenance and good housekeeping policies minimize the risk of possible ignition and explosive atmospheres.
Chemicals used at the beginning of the crop production cycle for seed-bed preparation and planting also can pose hazards for agricultural workers. Chemicals can increase soil fertility, reduce competition from weeds and insects and boost yields. The biggest concern for agricultural chemicals hazards is long-term exposure; however, anhydrous ammonia, a compressed liquid fertilizer, can cause immediate injury. Anhydrous ammonia (NH3) is a hygroscopic, or water-seeking, compound, and caustic burns result when it dissolves body tissue. Ammonia gas is a strong lung irritant, but has good warning properties. It also has a low boiling point and freezes on contact, causing another type of severe burn. Wearing protective equipment is the best way to reduce risk of exposure. When exposure occurs, first aid treatment requires immediately flushing of the area with plenty of water.
Grain production workers also are exposed to potential injury from slips and falls. A person can die from injuries in a fall from a height as low as 3.7 m, which is easily exceeded by operator’s platforms on most machinery or grain storage structures. Grain storage structures are at least 9 and up to 30 m tall, reachable only by ladders. Inclement weather can cause slippery surfaces from rain, mud, ice or snow build-up, so the use of guards, handrails and footwear with non-slip soles is important. Devices such as a body harness or lanyard also can be used to arrest the fall and minimize injury.