What Causes Grain Elevator Explosions?

There are more than 250,000 workers at 24,000 grain elevators and mills in this country. Many people don’t think of grain elevators when they hear about an explosion, but these towers often explode. The issue is something called “finely divided solids.”

Grain Elevator

Grain produces dust when it moves. This dust is suspended in the air inside the elevator, creating a combustible mixture that is highly flammable. All it takes is one spark and the whole elevator can explode. Static electricity, a light switch, or friction can create a spark that can lead to an explosion.

There are several conditions that must be met before a grain elevator can explode. They are:

  • Fuel, which could be dust particles that are suspended in the air from any type of stored grain
  • Oxygen
  • Enclosed space, which could be basement tunnels, the grain bin itself, silos, downspouts, or drag conveyors, and
  • An ignition source, which could be static electricity, a lit cigarette, lightning, sparks from welding torches, friction, or overheated equipment.

Explosions can also occur if grain dust accumulates on a surface and is exposed to an ignition source. Hot bearings, overheated motors, misaligned conveyer belts, welding equipment, and cutting tools can all become ignition sources.

Anatomy of a Grain Elevator Explosion

Grain elevators are usually 70 to 120 feet tall. They are made up of a headhouse, vertical storage spaces, an open work floor, and receiving pit. The grain is emptied into a pit from a truck. Buckets carry the grain to the top of the elevator, where it is emptied into a distributor leg.

When a grain elevator explodes, there are usually two explosions: primary and secondary. The primary explosion could shake more dust loose from the walls or equipment, providing fuel for a second explosion if an ignition source is present. Or the pressure of the explosion may aerosolize (force into the air) the dust that is clinging to the elevator walls, which could also lead to a secondary explosion. This explosion can cause even more injuries. In fact, secondary dust explosions are usually more severe, since they can propagate blast waves. Dust also fuels the flames, causing extensive damage and serious injuries and death.

Grain elevator explosions can cause serious injury and can kill.  Over the past 35 years, there have been more than 500 explosions in grain handling facilities in this country. Those accidents injured more than 675 people and have killed 180.

The types of injuries that may occur in a grain explosion are:

  • Primary injuries from the blast wave itself
  • Secondary injuries from the heat of a fire or from flying debris
  • Tertiary injuries if a person’s body is blown into the air from the blast wind or collapse of the structure
  • Quaternary, from other forces of the explosion

These injuries may include:

  • Crush injuries, which may lead to an eventual amputation
  • Brain injuries, caused by the pressure of the explosion or flying debris
  • Pulmonary contusions, or lung injuries
  • Injuries to the eardrum
  • Burns
  • Embolisms, or clots in the brain, spinal cord, or heart
  • Heart injuries, from a decrease in heart rate or contusions
  • Eye injuries

Safety Regulations

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)  has issued bulletins on combustible dust in industry and combustible dust explosions. The agency has set standards for grain handling facilities. Workers go into these storage bins. Employers must follow rules to make sure that the workers are safe under these conditions. For instance, they must test the air within a bin or silo for the presence of combustible materials before anyone enters the bin.

Unfortunately, those conditions may not be met and an accident can occur. If you or a loved one were injured in a grain elevator explosion, contact our experienced attorneys for help. We will work to make sure your legal rights are protected and that you are fairly compensated for your injuries. Call us at 1-888-377-8900 for a free and confidential consultation.

Our experienced attorneys know how to investigate and litigate these types of explosions. We start immediately to gather evidence, pore over company documents, interview witnesses, and research police and fire accident reports. We want to make sure that you have enough compensation to take care of past and future medical bills, loss of income, and to compensate you for pain and suffering.


  • “Grain dust explosions.” 2012. Farm and Ranch eXtension in Safety and Health (FReSH) Community of Practice.
  • “Combustible dust in industry: Preventing and mitigating the effects of fire and explosions.” (2005) United States Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration
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