Head Of Training, The Healthy Work Company

February 25, 2015

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Farm owner sentenced over toxic gas fatality

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

An investigation revealed that a similar incident had occurred in 2008, with a worker falling unconscious after being exposed to toxic gas, but it was never reported to HSE.

Dorchester Crown Court heard on 23 February that Mr Pitt and colleague 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 HSE found a number of unsafe practices and failings during both the construction and operation phases of the AD plant, namely:

  • 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; and
  • work at height during the removal of the roof was also carried out without adequate safety precautions.

The investigation also 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.

The prosecution fines totalled £70,000 with costs of £75,000, apportioned in the following way:

  • 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.
  • Mr Yeatman also pleaded guilty to two further breaches of the act as a partner of CO and RA Yeatman and was fined £45,000.
  • Mr Yeatman’s 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.” 

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