Farming family deaths prompt slurry warnings
The HSENI and the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) have both issued advice on the dangers of working with slurry, following the deaths of three members of a farming family in Northern Ireland.
Ulster rugby star Nevin Spence, 22; his brother Graham, 30; and father Noel, 58, were overcome by slurry gas on 15 September at the family’s farm in Hillsborough, County Down.
The HSENI, which is currently investigating the incident, has reminded farmers of the risks involved with mixing and spreading slurry. The regulator believes that because the task is such a familiar one, farmers’ have low perceptions about the related dangers.
Slurry gas comes from the breakdown of animal faeces by bacteria to produce a gas made up of methane, carbon dioxide, ammonia and hydrogen sulphide. This final element is the most dangerous part of the slurry gas mixture. A high concentration inhibits people’s sense of smell, displaces air from the lungs, and affects the nervous system. Exposure can cause a range of symptoms, including breathing discomfort, disorientation, collapse and potential sudden death.
According to the HSENI, farmers often bend down away from the mixer to check that mixing is in progress. However, because the gas is heavier than air, bending down for just a few minutes can cause unconsciousness.
Before entering a building after slurry mixing is complete, the use of pocket-sized meters, which measure levels of hydrogen sulphide, is described as a good way to check if the gas has had time to disperse.
However, the regulator warns against relying on a meter at the start of the mixing because, as the slurry-gas concentration rises so quickly, the meter will not give adequate warning, or time to escape. Only breathing apparatus fed from cylinders, or a filtered air supply from a compressor sited in the open air, offer effective protection, says the HSENI.
The NFU has also reminded its members of the dangers of slurry gases. Following the Spence family tragedy, the union’s vice-president said: “We are deeply saddened to hear the tragic news regarding these deaths and our heartfelt sympathies go out to the family. This type of accident happens all too often and is a stark reminder of the dangers of working with slurry.
“We don’t know the precise causes of the accident but we urge farm businesses to review the safety equipment that is available next to slurry tanks for use in emergencies.”
The HSENI’s safety leaflet on slurry gas can be downloaded at www.hseni.gov.uk/slurry_leaflet.pdf
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