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Rural Health & Safety - Fruit Farm Fatality

Two workers died selecting apples in a controlled atmosphere container.  Oxygen levels were only 1% so anyone in the chamber without breathing apparatus would die immediately once they ran out of breath.  However farm manager Andrew Stocker instructed the men to go in holding their noses - a deadly practice they apparently called “scuba diving”.

This July, Stocker was found guilty of manslaughter and jailed for two and a half years.

The estate company was prosecuted under the Confined Spaces Regulations 1997 and Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations 1999, for lack of a suitable risk assessment and emergency procedures, for working in confined spaces and fined £75,000 plus costs.

In a comparable case, a farm worker was killed after exposure to hydrogen sulphide working on an anaerobic digestion (AD) plant.  A colleague and a paramedic were also overcome by the fumes, but luckily survived.  The farm owner was considered careless rather than grossly negligent like Mr Stocker, so he was not prosecuted for manslaughter. Nevertheless he and his business were ordered to pay fines totalling £70,000, plus £75,000 costs.

Toxic gases and low oxygen environments may not top the list of common risks associated with agriculture.  The risks chosen for this year’s Farm Safety Week were falls, machinery, transport, livestock and child safety.  However commenting on the AD case, the HSE said there was no excuse for lack of awareness, risks [from] confined spaces and exposure to hydrogen sulphidein anaerobic digestion facilities are well-known.

The first question should always be can the job be done mechanically or remotely, so as to avoid exposure altogether? In the Michael Stocker case, it was suggested a hoist could have been used.  If so, needless deaths could have been avoided. 

Where there is no choice but to send somebody into a controlled atmosphere chamber or a confined space,
the fundamental requirements of health & safety law are for a suitable and sufficient risk assessment and a safe system of work.  Consider however if you are competent to undertake this assessment, or require specialist help.  Also consider if your workers are competent.  Are they trained to use rescue sets and breathing apparatus in a confined space?  Do they understand the gas levels, the temperature and the operational status of each chamber?

All businesses where workers might encounter controlled atmospheres or toxic gases should read Confined Spaces: A brief guide to working safely, available on the HSE website, as is guidance on hypoxic (low oxygen) environments and slurry guidance, revised in July, dealing extensively with toxic gases.

If you have a question on this topic or any other health & safety, environmental or regulatory issue affecting your business please call our regulatory team for a free initial discussion. 

Andrew Clarke can be reached at