Producer’s safety mantra: ‘No more, nobody else’

Leon Sheets tells a story he wishes he’d never have to share. It’s also a story he is glad that he is able to tell.

Sheets vividly recalls the day — Sept. 15, 2014 — as he was “just going to wet down the pens” of the empty barn with a power washer on his Ionia, Iowa, farm. As he was spraying back and forth, he noticed the Lp heater hanging there, “it wasn’t on because it was September and we didn’t need it for heat, but I knew the pilot light was still on, because it’s easier to leave it on than it is to try and restart it in the fall.”Leon Sheets

And besides, “I was only going to wash.”

He had reset the soakers and misters to help clean the barn, and he started rinsing the pen, “I threw the wand back and forth a time or two, and somewhere along the line, something went wrong, and it went ‘boom’.”

He catches himself as he retells the story, “It went ‘BOOM’!!”

He thought the fire ball came from behind him; hit the wall 12 feet in front of him, and came back at him.

Then it got quiet.

As it cleared and he got his senses, he started thinking of “the plan” in case you have an emergency, which he most definitely was in the middle of. “I looked around and did not see any flames in the room,” he says. Then he shows the eyeglasses that he had on that day. The heat from the fireball distorted the plastic lenses.

He recalls that the attic was “talking,” that the flames had reached that point of the building and he realized it was time to get out, walking through the door that he had closed but that was no longer there. Though he had suffered second- and third-degree burns over 20% of his body, he still had the wherewithal to go to the utility shed to trip the breakers, cutting the power source to the barn, disconnect the generator so that wouldn’t kick in and shut the valves from the Lp tank. “What possessed me to do that, I don’t know, but I thought to secure the scene.”

Then he figured he better call 911.

Sheets credits his physical activity as a farmer for getting him back in the barns sooner than doctors had envisioned. After a doctor told him it would be at least six months, maybe up to 18 months before he got back in the barns, Sheets thought he may be looking at a career change. He was back in the barns just a little over a month later.

He has not changed careers, but he has changed his attitude in how he approaches his hog operation.

The flash fire Sheets survived was caused by the methane gas released from foaming manure, but his barn wasn’t typical of the manure foaming situations pictured on safety brochures. “I wasn’t thinking of the consequences, the foam wasn’t bubbling up out of the pit, it was only a foot deep and it was four feet down,” he says.

And besides, “I was only going to wash.”

After his life-changing, and potentially life-ending, experience, Sheets encourages producers to take a serious look at even the “smallest” of tasks on the farm and in the barn. “Think about it,” he says, “Who does the power washing? It’s the newest person on the farm, you send your kids out to do it. … If I can’t walk in there and do it, I can’t ask anyone else to go in and do it.”

The Pork Checkoff has stickers producers can post in their barns, alerting all entering of the dangers of foaming manure. “You can put these stickers up in your barns to remind you to take precautions.” Sheets wakes up and looks at his reminders every day, the side of face still has visible scarring.

And he was only washing.

Sheets was on the same Iowa Pork Congress seminar session as Daniel Andersen, assistant professor in Iowa State University’s Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Department, and Sheets encourages more work from Andersen and his fellow researchers from other universities. “We’re (the industry) doing a good job when we’re pumping,” Sheets says. “But more people have got hurt washing. … I want the fix, I don’t want the suggestions how to cure it. I don’t want to worry about, I don’t want my staff to worry about it, I don’t want you to have to worry about it.”

Sheets took exception with an article that appeared in the September issue of National Hog Farmer  telling the dangers around manure pits and the gasses contained within the manure. That article, written by yours truly, discussed the necessary precautions to take while pumping the manure from storage, but neglecting to stress safety concerns while doing other tasks in the barn – such as power washing. Guilty as charged.

Daily barn checks are common for any producer, but Sheets says producers need to look deeper, as in what’s happening below the slats. “Look downstairs every day. You need to know what’s going on down there. …  You’ve got to do things in the barns for a safer environment, so that it doesn’t go boom.”

Sheets’ mantra has become, “No more, nobody else.” He doesn’t want to hear anymore tales of incidents such as his; he wants producers to be properly prepared for the worst.

Because remember, he was only washing.

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