Eau Claire County UW-Extension agriculture agent Mark Hagedorn was saddened when he heard about the deaths of two farmers Saturday in a silo near Barron.
“You hear about these things, and you think about the loss of life on farms over the years,” Hagedorn said. “Farming is one of the most dangerous professions we know of, and it reared its ugly head again Saturday. This kind of thing can happen in a heartbeat.”
Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald said the two people who died — 51-year-old Daniel Briel and 14-year-old David Briel — were working inside the silo Saturday night.
“Silage fell on them. They were chipping away at it,” Fitzgerald explained. “It was approximately 8 to 12 feet above them.”
A third person inside the silo escaped and called 911.
It is unclear if the victims died from being crushed by the weight of the silage or if they died from asphyxiation, he said.
“It was frozen and very heavy,” Fitzgerald said.
The sheriff’s office received a call about the incident at 7:49 p.m. Saturday. Fitzgerald said the first officer arrived at the farm at 671 17½ St. south of Barron four minutes after the call.
“They started immediately trying to get the silage off them,” Fitzgerald said.
Firefighters used thermal imaging devices and portable extrication equipment to free the victims, he said. Lifesaving efforts were attempted, but both subjects died at the scene.
Hagedorn said working inside silos can be dangerous.
“Anytime you are working around upright silos, even a bunker silo, loss of life has occurred when large amounts of feed have come loose and fallen on them,” Hagedorn said. “It’s like getting engulfed in grain — you can’t breathe. You can’t react fast enough (to free yourself).”
Cheryl Skjolaas, agriculture safety specialist for the UW Center For Agricultural Safety & Health, was surprised when she heard about the deaths.
“The frozen silage we don’t see on a regular basis,” she said. “They used to be more common in the ’50s and ’60s, before we had silo unloaders.”
Skjolaas said 20 fatalities occurred on farms in Wisconsin in 2016 and 21 in 2015, according to data kept by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Numbers for 2017 haven’t been released. The deaths range from being caught in machinery to being overcome by manure gases. One recent death was from a large hay bale — weighing between 800 and 1,500 pounds — that crushed someone.
“We see a mixture. We’re always going to be talking about tractors and them overturning,” Skjolaas said. “We have a lot of machinery out there too, with cutting mechanisms.”
Skjolaas agreed silos are particularly dangerous.
“You are entering a building that is defined as a confined space,” she said.
Last year in Brown County a silo structurally collapsed with two people inside, but they both survived, she said.
Hagedorn and Skjolaas both stressed the importance of thinking safely while working on farms.
“Always work in pairs,” Hagedorn said. “Always have a buddy around. It may not have made a difference in this (Barron) case. It’s always good to have someone go for help or lend a hand.”
Hagedorn suggested farmers pause and think about if what they are about to do could be lethal.
“If it looks dangerous, take a deep breath and reassess what you are doing,” Hagedorn said. “You pound the drum — be safe, be safe, be safe.”
Hagedorn said long workdays also can be a danger for farmers.
“We usually see these things happen in the spring, when we get really busy and we’re sleep deprived,” he said.
Skjolaas said she wanted to stress that farmers can look at preventive measures to reduce the chance of injury or death, such as making sure all equipment is properly repaired and functioning correctly before it is used. She also said farmers should be aware of their surroundings and potentially hazardous material.
“Try not to be in a situation where (silage) is over head,” she said.