Research is part of program responsible for 40% decrease in agricultural deaths over two decades

Researchers at Pennsylvania State University (PSU) have published a new, international standard to vent confined animal manure storage facilities used at large livestock operations. Manure storage poses a significant hazard to agricultural workers due primarily to the danger of toxic gas build up. Exact statistics are difficult to determine though researchers estimate that currently about ten people die each year in North American animal manure pits. With increasing focus upon surface water contamination, the number of such manure storage facilities on farms is steadily growing.

"The reason we got involved in this is not because hundreds of people are dying each year but rather the tragic scenario of multiple deaths per incident," explains Harvey Manbeck, PhD, PE, distinguished professor emeritus at PSU and one of two experts who led this eight-year research project. "When the family member comes by and sees that the father or son is in trouble, he or she goes in to try to help and is overcome; many times we have multiple deaths of family members, friends or coworkers."

Accidents typically happen when someone enters a manure pit to retrieve something, make a repair or clean the storage facility. In 2007, five people, including four family members, died in a manure pit at a Virginia farm. Victims succumb to toxic fumes caused by hydrogen sulfide, methane, carbon dioxide and other noxious gases.

According to the USDA, the average farm size is increasing and the number of farms is decreasing, which is also likely to contribute to the growing number of manure pits.

This new standard, just adopted by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the American Society of Agricultural & Biological Engineers, which published the standard, will ultimately reduce the risk of entering manure pit facilities. Dennis Murphy, PhD, CSP, distinguished professor of agricultural and biological engineering at PSU, co-led the research project, funded by the Northeast Center for Agricultural Health. "This is the first standard specifically for venting these manure storages and specifically to reduce entry risk," Manbeck says.

The new standard, ANSI S607, is available for use with new or existing construction by agricultural building design professionals, the agricultural building construction community and regulatory agencies.

Manbeck and Murphy are now in the process of developing an online design tool so that building professionals can create a ventilation system for any shape facility.

"What is unique is that we are making the design of a ventilation system more user friendly, and the intrinsic benefit is that if you make it easier…it increases the likelihood that such systems will be designed into new facilities or retrofitted into existing facilities," Manbeck says. If a building is t-shaped, for example, the online tool will evaluate how long you need to ventilate that space before the contaminate gas concentration has decreased and the oxygen level has increased to a safe level.

The design software should be available online at Penn State sometime in 2014.

The Northeast Center for Agricultural Health, the project funder, is one of nine centers established through the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing Program (AgFF). Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing occupations are the most dangerous in the United States, with a fatality rate eight times higher than all other U.S. industries combined-twice as great as in mining or transportation; two-and-one half times greater than construction.

The mandate of the AgFF Program is to reduce work-related injuries, illnesses and deaths in the United States among workers in the agriculture, forestry and commercial fishing industries. Relative to the size of this task, overall funding is quite conservative. In 2012, nearly $22 million was distributed among the regional centers and selected research projects. The AgFF Program has seen an overall reduction in injuries and deaths in agriculture, forestry and fishing since its inception in 1990. Deaths have decreased 40%, from 931 in 1992 to 557 in 2011.

"In our current environment of budget austerity, this is an example of a relatively low-cost program that is making a significant impact on public safety and at the same time saving farmers, insurers and government considerable costs related to injury and damage,' says John May, MD, director of the Northeast Center for Agricultural Health, based in Cooperstown, N.Y.

An independent five-year review by members of the National Academies of Science, published in 2012, gave the AgFF Program the highest score for relevance, 5 out of 5, and a 4 out of 5 for impact on worker safety and health. These are among the highest scores ever awarded to a government program of its kind.

Other NIOSH AgFF Centers are located in Davis, Calif.; Fort Collins, Colo.; Iowa City, Iowa; San Antonio, Texas; Lexington, Ky.; Minneapolis, Minn.; Marshfield, Wis.; Omaha, Neb.; and Seattle, Wash.