Farm director gets fine after dangerous work at height

The director of a Shropshire dairy farm has been prosecuted after he failed to protect both himself and others while working at height.

Shutt and Mansell Ltd director Phillip Mansell, 49, and a 22-year-old self-employed relief worker from Market Drayton, were both knocked unconscious after being lifted in the telescopic loader bucket to work on two molasses tanks when the incident happened on 30 September 2013.

Shrewsbury Magistrates’ Court heard today (12 Feb) how, while fitting a pipe to one of the tanks at Flashbrook Manor, Newport, the two men received a shock of 11,000 volts from overhead cables while working at height.

Both men slumped unconscious in the bucket, which was immediately brought back to ground level by the employee driving the telehandler.

The two suffered electrical burns and were taken to hospital. Mr Mansell has recovered and returned to work.

An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found it was normal working practice for the dairy farm to lift workers in the telehandler bucket to the top of the silage clamp when regular access was required.

The court heard the telehandler bucket was designed for general-purpose work, including shoveling/loading of feed, and was not designed for lifting people. There was no protection in place, such as rails, raised sides or an anti-tilt mechanism for stopping people falling out.

In addition there were no verbal or written checks on working at height in the telehandler, and the work was not planned.

Phillip Mansell, of Flashbrook Manor, Newport, was fined £18,000 and ordered to pay £1,495 in costs after pleading guilty to three breaches of section 37 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974.

Shutt and Mansell Ltd, of the same address, was fined £6,000 and ordered to pay £800 in costs after admitting breaching Regulation 9(3) of the Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations 1998.

Speaking after the hearing, HSE inspector Dr Marie-Louise Riley-Roberts said:

“A picture has emerged of a company that has failed to take measures to adequately control risks from working at height.

“There was a substantial and fundamental failure by the director to control the work to ensure it was effectively planned, supervised and carried out safely; and a failure to select the correct equipment to lift persons such as a purpose-made lifting platform. The failings of the company are directly attributable to actions of Mr Mansell.

“There was a very real risk of persons falling from height. It’s only down to luck that Mr Mansell and his co-worker, who were knocked unconscious, fell into the bucket and not out of it, otherwise we could be dealing with a tragic, double-fatal incident.”

In 2013/14, 27 agricultural workers were killed at work.

Farm worker’s death leads to prosecution over exposure to toxic gases

A Dorset farm owner and his two businesses have been fined for serious safety failings after a 29 year-old worker died following exposure to toxic gases.

Dorchester Crown Court heard today (23 Feb) that Matthew Pitt and David Bartlett were working at Lowbrook Farm, owned by Clifford Owen Yeatman, in Bechalwell, Blandford Forum. They were exposed to toxic gases during maintenance of an anaerobic digestion (AD) plant at the farm. The plant was developed by Biogas Nord UK, of which Mr Yeatman was sole director.

On 24 June 2009, Mr Pitt and Mr Bartlett, both from Sturminster Newton, were tasked with opening the roof of the digester tank to free a stirring mechanism which had stopped moving due to a crust forming in the tank. As they did so, they were engulfed by toxic hydrogen sulphide gas.

Both men lost consciousness and when Mr Bartlett came round he found Mr Pitt lying next to him but could not get a response. He alerted other people on site to get help and an ambulance was called. Two paramedics and two other farmworkers also suffered from the effects of the fumes. Mr Pitt was later declared dead without having regained consciousness.

An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found a number of unsafe practices and failings during both the construction and operation phases of the AD plant.

Mr Yeatman and his company, Biogas Nord, did not assess the risks associated with the plant in general or with opening the roof. The roof had been opened five times since March 2009, including the day of the incident, by people working for Mr Yeatman. However, it was not designed for routine removal and its opening should have been required only rarely had the plant been operating correctly.

Workers were not trained to remove the roof and did not recognise that the removal of the roof was a specialist job. The risks from substances generated in the AD process, including explosion and exposure to toxic gases, were poorly understood.

Work at height during the removal of the roof was also carried out without adequate safety precautions.

The investigation identified that a previous similar incident had never been reported to HSE. On 1 August 2008 farm worker Joerg Grondke fell unconscious after he was exposed to toxic gas when he was replacing the clamps that held the roof seal in place.

While masks were supplied after the 2008 incident workers were never trained in their use and they were taken off once the roof was removed in the mistaken belief that the danger had passed. The masks were also not face-fitted or properly maintained.

Clifford Owen Yeatman, of Lowbrook Farm, Blandford Forum, Dorset, was fined a total of £15,000 as a director of Biogas Nord UK (Ltd) after pleading guilty to two breaches of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. He also pleaded guilty to two further breaches of the act as a partner of CO and RA Yeatman and was fined £45,000. His company, Farmergy Ltd, also of Lowbrook Farm, was fined £10,000 after pleading guilty to breaching section 42 of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. Both Mr Yeatman and his company Farmergy Ltd were ordered to share £75,000 in costs.

Speaking after the hearing, HSE Inspector Annette Walker said:

“The previous incident involving Mr Grondke should have served as a warning about the risk of toxic substances when opening the roof. If that risk had been identified and safe systems of work put in place to prevent exposure to workers, the tragic death of Matthew Pitt would have been avoided.

“While farm energy generation from anaerobic digestion is an emerging application in the UK, anaerobic digestion has been used here for several decades for treatment of sludge by water companies.

“The risks associated with access to confined spaces and the associated potential for exposure to hydrogen sulphide in anaerobic digestion facilities are well-known.

“What has happened at that farm demonstrates the importance of having safe systems of work in place, particularly for maintenance and repair work where the risk of exposure is likely to be highest. The need for specialist skills and training also has to be recognised.”

Matthew Pitt’s mother, Janet Pitt, said:

“I have still not come to terms with the loss of our son. Matthew was not just a son, but a best buddy too. We were a close-knit farming family that did everything together. We lived, worked hard and played together. All that has ended and although we carry on with our lives, behind the strong exterior lies broken hearts that will never be mended.”

Further information on the process of anaerobic digestion can be found on the HSE website at HSE Disposal and Energy Recovery.