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Farm Owner Fined after Fatal Work Accident

A farm owner has been fined for serious safety failings after a worker, in his 20s, died when he was exposed to toxic gas.

Dorchester Crown Court heard the man and a colleague were exposed to the deadly gas whilst trying to repair an anaerobic digestion (AD) plant.

The term “anaerobic digestion” refers to the natural breakdown of organic matter such as household and commercial food waste, garden waste and farm slurry, into a methane and carbon dioxide mix known as biogas.

On the day of the work accident, the men had been asked to open the roof of the digester tank to repair a faulty stirring mechanism which had failed after a crust had formed in the tank.

A typical AD tank is a sealed unit or set of units in which bacteria act without oxygen to break organic matter down.
As the workers opened the tank, they were overcome by hydrogen sulphide gas and lost consciousness.

Hydrogen Sulphide is an extremely hazardous and highly flammable explosive gas that occurs naturally as a product of decaying sulphur-containing organic matter.

Inhalation of high concentrations of the gas - which is commonly found in sewers, sewage treatment plants, mines and manure stockpiles - can lead to collapse, inability to breathe and death within minutes.

When one of the men regained consciousness he found his colleague lying unresponsive beside him. Paramedics and two other workers - who attended the scene and also suffered effects from the fumes – were sadly unable to save the man who was pronounced dead at the scene.

A Health and Safety Executive Work Accident investigation found a number of safety failings regarding the construction and use of the AD plant at the farm.

The roof of the tank had been opened five times in three months despite it not being designed for routine removal and the fact that it was only supposed to be opened on very rare occasions.

Workers were not trained to remove the roof and had little understanding of the risks involved with explosions and exposure to poisonous gas.

The investigation also revealed that a worker had been rendered unconscious in a similar incident the previous year but the work accident had never been reported.

The owner of the Dorset farm was fined several thousand pounds after pleading guilty to breaching the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. He was also ordered to share £75,000 in costs.

AD has been used in the UK for several decades now and the associated risks of hydrogen sulphide exposure are well known. It beggars belief that the previous gas incident was never reported as it would have warned staff of the inherent risks of working with the digester.

Put simply, this tragic accident could have been avoided if the risk had been identified earlier and the appropriate safety measures had been implemented.

Over the last 10 years, there has been almost one death a week due to agricultural work. Farming remains one of the most dangerous industries and accounts for around one in five fatal work accidents.

Health and safety is a fundamental requirement of a successful farm and should be regarded as an essential part of how a farm is managed.

Matthew Tomlinson is a Senior Personal Injury Lawyer specialising in fatal work accident compensation claims at Slater and Gordon Lawyers UK.

If you or someone you know has been injured or killed in a work accident and would like to discuss claiming compensation, call Slater and Gordon Lawyers for a free consultation on freephone 0800 916 9046 or contact us online.

Slater and Gordon are a leading personal injury law firm with more than 1,450 staff and 18 offices in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Sheffield, Milton Keynes, Bristol, Derby, Merseyside, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Halifax, Newcastle, Wakefield and meeting rooms in Bramhall, Cheshire and in Hull, Yorkshire.

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