Matt Henderson didn't have time to think.
One moment he was using a broom to knock loose sunflower seeds that were clogging a bin at the Nickerson Co-op. The next he was buried by seeds at the bottom of the bin.
"I'm here today because my co-worker reacted as fast as he did," the 29-year-old Henderson said.
Jon Darling was Henderson's safety lookout Sept. 20, 2007, when Henderson entered the bin through a manhole.
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Kansas' 700-plus commercial grain elevators must follow safety standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1988, after a rash of deadly grain dust explosions at elevators in the late 1970s.
Safety training has increased over the years. Grain dust explosions have decreased, with the June 8, 1998, explosion at the DeBruce Grain elevator south of Wichita the only one to result in fatalities since 1980.
That's not to say all is well. Being engulfed by grain is the greatest threat to those who work at elevators.
Twenty-one of the 48 deaths of Kansas grain elevator workers since 1980 were caused by suffocation after a worker was buried by grain, including seven of the last 11.
The most recent was last November, when an employee of the Garden City Co-op was buried while trying to unclog grain in an elevator in Amy, west of Dighton in Lane County.
"When you're dealing with flowing grain, I don't care how stout you are — you're going down," said Brandon Dills, who is the safety compliance officer for CoMark and oversees about 60 co-op elevators in Kansas.
"If the grain is above your knees, you're trapped."
It 'scared me'
As Henderson worked along a 45-degree slope inside the bin, he wore a harness that was attached to a rope tied off at the top of the manhole.
"But I had too much slack in my line," he said.
When the sunflower seeds loosened up, Henderson began to slip on the slope.
"Once I started going down," he said, "I started hollering for (Darling). He knew what to do immediately."
Henderson slid to the bin's bottom and was completely covered by the seeds. He was engulfed for only about 1 1/2 minutes because Darling quickly opened a trap door and — with the help of another employee — was able to pull Henderson out.
It helped that Henderson wore a dust mask, which prevented him from swallowing the seeds.
"I don't even remember being engulfed," Henderson said. "It just startled me, scared me. I didn't know what was going on."
Except that he was alive. He went to the hospital as a precaution, then later returned to work.
"We were very fortunate that Matt made it through," Nickerson Co-op general manager Joe Schauf said, "because 90 percent of the time they don't."
More than 1 1/2 billion bushels of harvested crops moved through Kansas' elevators in 2009.
The state ranked No. 1 in the nation in wheat and milo production and was in the top 10 in three other crops.
Processing all that in a facility that has a lot of moving parts — augers, conveyor belts, trucks, trains — and such danger points as dust, heights, chemicals and electricity can lead to problems.
"The perception I have is elevators are more proactive about training their employees," said Leland McKinney, a Kansas State University assistant professor in grain and industry science. "Certainly there is room for improvement.
"Not all elevators are equal in their approach in training their employees to be safer. But there is more awareness about workplace safety in general than there was 20 years ago. The grain industry is no exception."
Scott Anderson is well aware of those changes. For 20 years, he has been vice president of risk management for Kansas Farm Service Agency, which offers insurance to co-ops and independent elevators.
Back in the early 1980s, he was fresh out of high school and working at a co-op elevator in Solomon in north-central Kansas. He came upon a fire in the basement of the elevator and helped put it out. Although there was no explosion, he was close to a potential disaster.
"I didn't know grain dust could explode," he said. "No one explained that to me."
There's been a significant culture shift in terms of safety since those days, Anderson said.
"They don't just say, 'Here's a shovel, go get 'em,' " he said.
Demand for help in safety compliance and training picked up significantly in 1999, the same year CoMark hired Dills.
The DeBruce explosion was one reason, but Dills said the wheels were already turning. OSHA was starting to put a special emphasis on elevator safety.
"OSHA basically said, 'Guys, we're coming. You better figure this out,' " Dills said.
But the insurance market was a bigger driver than OSHA. Because of safety issues, Dills said, insurance companies were dropping out of the elevator market.
"That really woke some people up," Dills said. "They realized, 'We can't do business like we've always done business. We have to step up to the plate, take initiative and make this a better industry.' "
Kansas Farm Service Agency began helping its customers with safety issues about 20 years ago. In 1999, it established Ag Services, which offers training for elevator employees and a shared safety director.
The majority of the state's elevators were built from the 1940s to the 1960s, well before the newer technology and design that made the workplace safer and more efficient was available.
But Anderson estimated that 90 percent of the facilities have had major updates, which would include safer features.
Today, equipment has monitors that alert workers to such safety issues as overheating.
Reducing grain dust is an ongoing issue to minimize the threat of an explosion.
Sometimes that is done by spraying mineral oil on the grain. Newer conveyor belts that are covered also help, Dills said.
"You can do as much as you can afford," Dills said. "It's not cheap."
One thing is certain: An elevator is violating OSHA standards if more than 1/8of an inch of dust — the thickness of a quarter — is within 35 feet of the conveyor belt moving grain, said Gary Kearn, safety director of Scoular Grain, which has elevators nationwide, including five in Kansas.
"Companies are doing a better job of housekeeping," Kearn said.
Today's elevators have a lot of automation, which reduces the number of elevator workers. But the human factor still plays a significant role in safety.
When something does go wrong and there's an accident, Tom Tunnell, president and CEO of the Kansas Grain and Feed Association, said, "In most case it's because employees didn't comply with the rules."
No argument from Terry Kohler, general manager of the Garden Plain Co-op.
"You don't completely run an elevator from a computer," he said. "You still have to get out there around the moving parts. You need to know what you're doing and be safe.
"But first you have to be trained. It's not, 'Hey, you're supposed to know.' We're supposed to train them to know."
Training comes from a variety of sources.
As harvest time approaches, the KFSA joins with the state's grain and feed group each May to put on six one-day safety clinics.
Co-ops and independents also drill on safety.
Anderson said it's not uncommon for training for a new employee to last up to a day and a half. There are also ongoing monthly, weekly and even daily safety training updates at elevators.
The National Grain and Feed Association recently made available a new safety instructional DVD to show to new elevator employees, said Scoular Grain's Kearn, who heads the trade group's education subcommittee.
"You need constant training," Kohler said. "If it's not there, all of a sudden you get complacent and accidents do happen."
Nickerson Co-op's Henderson doesn't need to be reminded how important ongoing training is.
"It saves lives," he said. "Saved my life. You can't be too careful."
And, yes, he feels safe working at the elevator.
"My boss... he's always telling us to be safe throughout the day," Henderson said, "so you can go home at the end of the day."