Belfast Telegraph

Farming industry where deadly dangers lurk all around

By Victoria O'Hara

The death of eight-year-old Robert Christie highlights the huge dangers faced by farmers in Northern Ireland despite a major high-profile safety campaign.

As another family is plunged into mourning following a farming accident, the Health and Safety Executive has vowed it will continue to work to avoid such tragedies occurring.

The incident that led to the death of the schoolboy and left his father critically ill in hospital comes two years after a high-profile farming accident involving slurry.

In September 2012 Ulster rugby player Nevin Spence (below), his father Noel and brother Graham died after they were overcome by fumes on their family farm.

The men lost their lives attempting to rescue the family dog from the underground tank.

Over 40 people have died on farms in Northern Ireland in the last six years.

Between 2008 and 2013 farming accidents involved falls, slurry fumes, animal attacks and equipment. Six of the victims died from slurry fumes.

Three months before the Spence deaths 43-year-old William McMillan from Dromore, Co Down, drowned after after accidentally falling into slurry pit.

During an inquest into his death Coroner John Leckey highlighted HSE figures showing there were 12 farm fatalities in 2012, with the same number in 2011.

He said that at a previous farm death inquest he had made the point that if there was that incidence of fatalities in any other industry there would be calls for a public inquiry.

Although it is of scant comfort to the Christie family, Robert's is the first death from slurry since the Spence tragedy.

Other lives lost in farming accidents included 10-year old Aaron Macauley who died in July 2013 after an accident in Castlewellan.

The schoolboy suffered fatal injuries when he was thrown from the cab of a loading shovel on his family farm.

His older brother Matthew was in the cab with him but survived.

Little six-year-old boy Harry Thomas Starrett was found dead in a farm's milking parlour in 2013. The family are still searching for answers after an inquest failed to find a cause of death.

An inquest revealed he collapsed within 15 minutes of entering the parlour last July.

Slurry was being mixed elsewhere on the farm that day.

The official cause of death was recorded as "unascertained" as the inquest revealed details of two separate tests to establish whether toxic slurry fumes had been responsible proved negative.

However, no other underlying health conditions with the heart or brain which could explain why a "happy, healthy little boy" died could be found during a post-mortem.

Farming is a major contributor to the Northern Ireland economy by providing employment to around 47,000 people across 24,500 farms.

In 2013 the Stop and Think Safe campaign was launched, which included television, radio and press advertisements specifically designed to help reduce the number of farm deaths and injuries.

The 'Safe message addressed the four biggest causes of death and injury on our farms – Slurry, Animals, Falls from height and Equipment.

But according to the Northern Ireland Health and Safety Executive there is no such thing as a safe slurry tank. It is used by farmers as a natural fertiliser for their crops and works by waste material from animals being collected underneath barns.

It has to be broken up and mixed. This is normally carried out in a tank. However, this mixing process leads it to becoming odourless and lethal invisible gases are produced.

Barclay Bell of the Ulster Farmers Union says it will continue to send a message to keep farmers thinking safety at all times.

"When it comes to working with slurry, once they start to mix it, the message is to leave the building," he said.

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