What Lessons Can be Learned from the Slurry Pit Tragedy?

The tragic triple death of the rugby player Nevin Spence and his father and brother in a slurry pit over the weekend highlights the ever present danger in working on a farm.

Alarmingly this accident is far from rare. Figures from the Health and Safety Executive in Northern Ireland indicate one fatality occurred every month in the last 20 months reported- a shocking statistic.

It demonstrates that working on a farm- with potentially dangerous machinery and often alone- requires constant vigilance to ensure safety.

This particular tragedy in a slurry pit indicates one of the most serious hazards of farming. Slurry collected from cattle shed is stored in pits and tanks so it can be spread on fields later as fertiliser.

As the manure decomposes it gives off noxious fumes which bubble to the surface. As these fumes are heavier than air they settle on the surface of the slurry so that the victim who falls in can easily be overcome by the fumes, lose consciousness and drown.

It seems that this wet summer in particular led to an increased amount of slurry being stored and thus the risks were increased. Added to this the bad weather also limited the opportunities for slurry to be spread- a fatal combination that at least seems partly responsible for this tragedy.

The Health and Safety Executive are responsible for investigating such accidents to determine their exact cause and also to make recommendations for the future to try and ensure that measures are taken to avoid such incidents.

It is to be hoped that the tragic lessons from this accident will be learned and understood by all who work on farms and are responsible for putting in place the correct procedures and systems to minimise the risks.

Farming is a very special type of employment situation because of the usually very close personal contact between the employer and employed who work alongside each other closely and rely on each other for assistance. This can mean in some situations that the risks are sometimes inevitably not fully assessed or appreciated.

At this time the Government are seeking to lessen the impact of what they see as the restrictions of health and safety regulations on employers. We do not yet know what the exact causes of this tragedy were. But what it highlights is that the culture of safety should not – and cannot- be discarded  in a misguided attempt to kick start economic growth.