By DOUG GRAVES
ST. HENRY, Ohio — Three brothers died last week after getting stuck in a manure pit. The tragedy occurred on a St. Henry farm on Coldwater Creek Road in Mercer County and just 10 miles from the Indiana state line. Days after the accident the local roads were lined with tractors paying tribute to the men.
Brothers Brad (35), Todd (31) and Gary Wuebker (37) were performing maintenance on a manure pit at the time of the accident.
St. Henry Fire Department Chief Matt Lefeld said emergency crews were called to a farm at 12:30 p.m. on Aug. 10 after three men passed out in the manure pit. When rescue crews arrived, the men were already under water in the pit and a dive team had to pull them out. The three men were pulled from the pit within roughly 20 minutes of the initial 911 call being received. A preliminary autopsy shows they died by asphyxiation.
All three men worked with their father on the family farm they owned and ran together: GBT Wuebker Farms L.L.C. They were the sons of John and Nancy Wuebker.
Gary and Brad worked for Mercer Landmark Inc. a locally owned farm cooperative located in West Central Ohio with 19 facilities. Mercer Landmark posted the following on the firm’s Facebook page on Aug. 11.
“Brad, Gary and Todd Wuebker lost their lives doing what they loved - working on the family farm. Brad and Gary were members of our team and had a work ethic like no other.
“Brad Wuebker was our Shift Supervisor for our Celina mill. He had tremendous knowledge of the mill and WEM system.
“Gary Wuebker worked part-time at our St. Henry mill and devoted more of his time to their family farm. He was willing to do anything it took to get the job done.”
Todd worked at Rindler Truss in St. Henry.
All three were members of the Coldwater Young Farmers.
A Mass of Christian Burial was held Aug. 16 at St. Henry Church. Burial was in St. Aloysius Cemetery, Carthagena, Ohio. Memorials may be directed to the Wuebker Children’s Education Fund at People’s Bank.
Dee Jepsen, ag and health safety leader for Ohio State University, leads discussions across Ohio about the dangers lurking on the farm and the risks that farmers are likely to encounter. Jepsen is a regular at Farm Science Review, where she holds farm safety demonstrations each day of the show. Grain entrapments and manure pit dangers are tops on her discussions.
“Although they’re open-air structures, lagoons and manure pits produce dangerous air contaminants with unfavorable ventilation,” Jepsen said. “Farmers and farm workers sometimes forget that conditions can change in a manure pit from day to day, and season to season, resulting in different gasses being emitted, and different safety hazards. Just because you’ve entered the pit or you’ve done something one day, does not mean that it’s the same as the next day.”
Jepsen said dangerous gasses often associated with manure pits include ammonia, carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide and methane. These gases can lead to headaches, dizziness, breathing trouble and deaths.
Jepsen said it only takes about a four percent concentration of methane to displace one percent of oxygen, enough to affect thinking and functioning. She adds that methane is lighter than air and will rise and go undetected.
Hydrogen sulfide produces a rotten egg smell and lurks around the bottom of the pit. This highly toxic gas can irritate the eyes and nose at levels as low as 100 parts per million. But at higher percentages, such as 800 or more, “it can take out your respiratory capacity altogether,” she said.
“High levels of hydrogen sulfide will actually deaden a person’s senses so you can no longer smell its presence. Holding your breath doesn’t work because the irritation to your eyes and nose will cause you to gasp for air.”
Another dangerous time occurs, Jepson adds, is when agitation equipment stirs the manure and creates air pockets and bubbles, releasing more gas.
“There have been cases, such as this one perhaps, where several individuals have died while attempting to rescue a co-worker or family member from a pit,” Jepson says. “Deaths in manure pits happen most frequently in the summer months, but they’re potentially dangerous year-round.”
According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), there are more than 57,000 manure pits in operation on farms in the U.S. (2018). The number of on-farm manure storage pits is expected to increase significantly in coming years because of increasing regulatory pressure on animal agriculture operations to dispose of manure in ways that help reduce nonpoint-source pollution.
Both the USDA and NIOSH state that manure pits should be treated like any other type of confined space.
The USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service published Manure Storage Safety guidelines aimed at producers who work around manure pits. Some of USDA’s key points include:
• Warning Signs. Post warning signs about the risks of confined spaces and openings to manure storage areas. Include warnings against walking or driving on crushed manure sources.
• Limit Access: Limit access to manure storage areas to authorized personnel only. Install and maintain fencing around uncovered ground-level storage levels such as manure ponds or lagoons.
• Education: Educate employees, family members and visitors about the hazards associated with manure storage.
• Entry Plan: If the manure is in a confined space, prepare and document an entry plan for entering that space and review that plan annually with all employees and family members.
• All manure pits should be ventilated.
• Test the atmosphere within the pit before entry.
• Never enter a manure pit unless someone is standing by and maintaining constant visual or auditory contact.
• Never enter a manure pit to attempt a rescue without proper respiratory protection.