Safety first, always: Don’t enter silo or bins with fermenting grain
A tragic farm accident claimed the lives of three Minnesotans in December.
Brothers Steve and Curt Boesl, and Curt’s son, Alex, died after inhaling toxic fumes from a silo full of high moisture corn on the family farm near Millerville, which is north of Brandon, Minn.
On December 21, Curt age 47, and son Alex, eleven, were on top of the silo working when they were overcome by fumes. Another of Curt’s sons called 911 then called his uncle Steve for help. Steve came to help and was also overcome by the fumes. Steve died at the scene, and helicopters airlifted Curt and Alex to hospitals in the Minneapolis area.
On Saturday, Dec. 22, Curt died, and a week after the accident, Alex passed away.
The family had been praying for a miracle for Alex, according to a Facebook post by Erin Beltz Boesl, the boy’s aunt. “Fly high sweet boy. We didn’t get the miracle that we all prayed and hoped for, but you have given the miracle of life to so many others. We love you and will miss you always.” Steve and Curt Boesl had three brothers and two sisters. All five brothers were involved in the family farming operation, which included dairy and beef cattle and row crops.
Steve and Curt were involved in the community, volunteering in several different roles. Curt was assistant fire chief of the Millerville Fire Department and was a trustee for the Our Lady of Seven Dolors Catholic Church in Millerville. Steve had served in the fire department in the past, was a volunteer with his church, also the Our Lady of Seven Dolors, and was a supervisor on the Millerville Township Board.
The family was “very well loved,” said a church member, and the loss will be felt for a long time, said Troy Becker, fire chief for the Millerville department. “They were good family people, good people for the community,” he said. “They gave their time. They volunteered and had a big impact on the community.”
A funeral for all three was held Dec. 31, with the service streamed live to the overflow crowd. Becker said it was estimated that 1,200 people attended the funeral.
Both men had five kids and were proud of and involved in their kids’ activities. Steve and his wife Kim’s children: Paige, Peyton, Dalton, Dylan and Avery, were involved in hockey and showing cattle, sheep and pigs in 4-H.
Curt and his wife Julie had five kids: Alex, who passed away, Logan, Claire, Lance, and Lily. Curt’s sister-in-law, Erin Beltz Boesl, posted on Facebook: “Curt, you were the life of the party. You had the biggest smile and unforgettable laugh. Always joking with my kids and placing bets that they were sure to win. We will miss you like crazy.”
Both men were giving men, to their families and their community. Steve’s obituary read: “his selflessness and thinking of others showed through to the end as he tried to save his brother and nephew. His huge heart will never be forgotten and his legacy lives on in his children.”
Steve and Curt are survived by their parents, Tim and Phyllis and siblings Jeff (Julie); Pam (Adrian) Panther; Scott (Erin); Brent (Amanda); and Jenny (Greg) Faber. Steve is survived by his wife, Kim, their five children, and his father-in-law and mother-in-law Ron and Barb Sczublewski.
Curt is survived by his wife, Julie, their four children, and his father-in-law and mother-in-law John and Ruth Jesnowski.
Alex was an organ donor.
The gases that killed the Boesls are formed by the natural fermentation of silage, or, in this case, high moisture corn.
Carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide are the two gases that are formed by the natural fermentation of chopped silage after it is placed in the silo. Carbon dioxide is formed first, and when the ensiling process is anaerobic, it produces nitrogen dioxide. Normally, silage is to be avoided for two weeks, to let the gases dissipate.
In sealed silos, as was the case on the Boesl farm, those gases cannot escape.
High levels of carbon dioxide help maintain high quality silage, and carbon dioxide itself is not poisonous. But it can cause asphyxiation by replacing the oxygen in the silo. It is odorless, colorless, and dangerous, and in high concentrations, gives little warning to the person that he or she is about to be overcome by a lack of oxygen.
Nitrogen dioxide has a strong odor like bleach and low-lying yellow, red or dark brown fumes. Nitrogen dioxide levels peak about three days after harvesting and decrease rapidly after that. After two weeks, there is usually no new gas produced, but if it is a sealed silo, like the upright blue silos, those gases are still trapped within the silo.
Nitrogen dioxide is harmful because it causes severe irritation to the nose and throat. But the most dangerous part of the gas is that low level exposure causes mild pain and discomfort and can lead to death. The person working in the area may not notice any serious ill effects, but fluid can collect in the lungs and lead to death hours later. Some people who have been exposed to nitrogen dioxide suffer relapses two to six weeks after the first exposure, with symptoms similar to pneumonia. Anyone who thinks they might have suffered from silo gases should get immediate medical attention.
According to a fact sheet produced by the University of Wisconsin-Madison extension, numerous cases of silage gas have probably gone unreported, as symptoms of nitrogen dioxide poisoning don’t show up right away.
Both carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide are heavier than air and tend to settle on top of the silage or flow down the silo chute and collect in adjacent feed rooms or near the base of the silo.
With high concentrations of both gases, death can happen quickly. “This is very fast acting material,” said Dr. Kevin Janni, a professor at the University of Minnesota. “High accumulations can accumulate in silos like this.”
Sealed silos like the one in the accident that killed the members of the Boesl family aren’t as common anymore, in part because dairy operations are larger and use piles or bunkers, said Dr. Janni. With piles and bunkers, the toxic gases escape into the air much easier, even though the chance of harm is still present.
OSHA has issued guidelines for nitrogen dioxide, stating that three parts per million (PPM) is the rate a normal healthy worker can tolerate for eight hours a day, five days a week. But at 5 PPM, the recommended amount of short term exposure limit is fifteen minutes. “It doesn’t take much,” Janni said. He noted that the exposure limits for nitrogen dioxide have been reduced from what they were in 2010.
Taking precautions can help ensure the safety of those working around silos and include the following list:
• Avoid exposure for ten days after filling the silo and when opening the silo for feeding.
• There is no definitive timeline as to how long a person should remain out of a silo or away from the silage in storage. Variables depend on the forage condition, the type of silage structure, maintenance of the silo, even weather conditions. Extreme care should always be taken when around silage. Farmers should ventilate the silo well prior to entry, and, ideally, have a gas meter to analyze the air before entry.
• Ventilate the silo room adequately for at least two weeks after filling.
• Open the windows and outside door of the silo room and use fans if necessary.
• Running the silo blower for 15-45 minutes before entering the silo and while you are in the silo helps remove silo gas, but it is NOT a substitute for a self-contained breathing apparatus.
• Never enter a silo if you are alone, without a self-containing breathing apparatus.
• Seek medical attention if you suspect you have been exposed to silo gas.
• Have three people outside to help.
• Silage piles do not pose the severe threat that silos do, but care must still be taken when working around the pile or bunker:
• Post appropriate warning signs. People need to be told to stay away from these areas and never enter them.
• Barricade silage areas to prevent children and strangers from entering them.
• During the dangerous loading and fermentation period, provide fencing around the silage area to keep children and animals a safe distance from silo gases. F