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Farm workers' lucky escape as dead birds warn of toxic slurry fumes

By Chris McCullough

Published 12/02/2016

The dead birds in the shed
The dead birds in the shed
Farm contractor Christian Lester

A farm contractor had a lucky escape when birds dropped dead around him.

Christian Lester (17), from Scarvagh Contracts based in Co Armagh, was mixing slurry on a customer's farm.

Accompanied by another person for safety reasons, Christian was working in a well-ventilated shed when he noticed a lot of birds flying around.

All the livestock had been taken out, but when two birds dropped dead, Christian knew there was a problem.

He has warned others to be on their guard when mixing slurry as the gases can be fatal.

He said: "We were mixing slurry for the customer near Armagh on Tuesday around 4pm.

"Safety is paramount when mixing slurry because of the carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide gases. We keep the doors and windows of the tractor that is mixing closed at all times.

"However, we noticed a lot of birds, thought to be chaffinches, flying around the shed. All of a sudden one dropped from the sky dead and landed on the shed floor.

"Then we noticed another one had died and had fallen on to the floor as well. It didn't take me long to realise it most likely was the gas that got to the birds.

"We stayed outside for some time to let the air clear."

A number of gas detectors are available on the market to help farmers and contractors detect these harmful gases.

Christian, like many other farmers, does not use them, but this latest incident has made him more cautious about slurry gas.

"We always keep our distance from the pump when we mix slurry," he said. "Plus, no one is ever in the tractor when we are mixing, even with all of the windows and doors closed.

"It's the first time I ever seen that happening and I hope it's the last."

In September 2012, Nevin Spence (22) died when he fell into a slurry tank. His brother Graham (30) and dad Noel (52) also died in the accident on their farm in Hillsborough, Co Down.

In June 2014, eight-year-old Robert Christie lost his life when he was overcome by fumes as he and his father Robert snr mixed slurry on a farm near Dunloy.

The Health and Safety Executive NI said: "Slurry gas is a mixture of gases including methane, carbon dioxide, ammonia and hydrogen sulphide.

"The most dangerous part is hydrogen sulphide. This is extremely poisonous to people and animals. A high concentration knocks out your sense of smell. It also causes difficulty in breathing then disorientation.

"Collapse and death can occur after only a few breaths at high concentration of gas because it displaces air from your lungs and also affects the nervous system.

"A facemask will not help. Filter-type masks are not suitable. Any person who enters a slurry tank must wear breathing apparatus with an air supply. Such work is a specialist operation and is best left to fully trained, competent contractors. They must be properly trained to use the equipment.

"The equipment must be regularly maintained, and the person entering the tank must be connected by harness and lifeline to two people outside the tank."

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