Slurry: avoid a messy accident by thinking SAFE and acting

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For many people in Northern Ireland, farming is more than a job, it is a way of life and its importance to the local economy cannot be underestimated.

In fact, recent statistics show that approximately 47,800 people are employed across 24,500 farms. Indeed the value and importance of agriculture to society is best summed by Zimbabwean ecologist Allan Savory who stated: “Without agriculture it is not possible to have a city, stock markets, banks, university, church or army. Agriculture is the foundation of civilisation and any stable society.”

Unfortunately, farming is not without its dangers, as illustrated by the high death rate which has averaged at almost seven people per year over the last decade. A survey conducted by the NI Safety Partnership in 2015 revealed that 4.8% of farms reported an accident occurring during the previous twelve months. Indeed, the Farm Safety Partnership itself was created in 2012 in an effort to address concerns regarding the number of accidents occurring on farms, and quickly identified four key dangers; slurry, animals, falls and equipment, commonly referred to by the acronym SAFE.

This article examines the first of the categories of danger; slurry.

Slurry is a mixture of manure produced by animals and water that’s normally stored in tanks located beneath sheds housing livestock or in large outdoor lagoons and ultimately spread on fields as a natural fertiliser to boost growth. Before removing slurry from tanks and lagoons for spreading, it is necessary to mix it; a process which can emit a hazardous cocktail of gasses, of which hydrogen sulphide is the most harmful.

This gas is extremely poisonous and when inhaled in a concentrated form, quickly leads to loss of consciousness and even death. In addition, farmers need to be alert to the threat posed by uncovered slurry tanks, into which someone, particularly a child, could fall in and drown. Finally, there is also danger associated with the spreading of slurry on fields arising from loss of control of tractors caused by the significant weight of slurry tankers.

In Northern Ireland, farmers are not permitted to spread slurry, apart from exceptional circumstances, between mid-October and the end of January, meaning that the window for spreading slurry spans eight and a half months of the year. This brings with it a myriad of potential dangers which are explored in greater detail below and a number of steps that can be taken to greatly reduce or eliminate the risks for all involved.

On 15 October 2016, before the closure of the slurry spreading period, Co. Tyrone farmer Alistair Sloss tragically lost his life on his farm near the village of Coagh. This followed an incident at Letterbreen, Co. Fermanagh where five animals were killed and a farmer was hospitalised. Although unquestionably tragic events, perhaps the incident which has garnered most publicity was the death of Ulster and Irish rugby’s upcoming star Nevin Spence in September 2012, alongside his father and brother. This brought into stark focus the danger and potentially life shattering consequences associated with slurry.

There are a number of simple steps which farmers should take while working with slurry to minimise risks.

Firstly, farmers should seriously consider conducting a formal risk assessment and recording the results. If a farmer is employing anyone else to assist him, there is a legal obligation under Article 3 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000 to conduct a risk assessment and if he employs five or more people he must record the findings in writing.

Regardless of the legal requirement, conducting a risk assessment is good practice and will kick-start the process of famers giving serious consideration to the risks they face.

When the risks have been identified and addressed, before starting to mix slurry, animals should be moved out of the sheds where the operations are taking place. The 2015 Survey revealed that 16% of farmers had mixed slurry without removing housed livestock which served to potentially place the animals in harm’s way. After the animals have been removed, all doors and outlets should be opened to create a draught and provide maximum ventilation. It is useful to check the weather forecast in advance and target any particularly windy days to undertake work with slurry as blustery weather will help boost ventilation and reduce the risk of gas poisoning.

While the slurry is being agitated it is advisable to remain outside but, if this is unachievable, stand upwind of where the work is taking place. A shocking 32% of farmers admitted to remaining beside an underground slurry tank while mixing took place. Any farmer wishing to build an indoor slurry tank would be well advised to give serious consideration to inserting an outside mixing point.

Throughout the mixing process be sure to keep children well away at a safe distance.

Wearing face masks has been flagged as essentially futile, as when working with slurry and the gasses it emits, full breathing apparatus with its own air supply is necessary to prevent asphyxiation. Gas meters which can give an accurate indication of the build-up of potentially lethal gasses are strongly recommended. Given the often skin tight profit margins in farming, there is an understandable reluctance to undertake unnecessary spending but financing something which could save lives is surely an investment rather than a waste.

Finally, when the slurry has been safely loaded into a tanker and transported to the field for spreading farmers should remain vigilant to safety risks. Although tractors have increased in size and power, it is advisable to drive at a cautious speed when spreading slurry and avoid driving on steep ground, particularly with a full tanker in tow.

Although the mixing and spreading of slurry is rife with danger, there is evidence to suggest that many farmers are taking safety measures more seriously, with 22% indicating that they had introduced safer slurry procedures.

This gives hope for the future and may prove to be the catalyst for other farmers playing catch up. Legal regulations can play a part in making farming safer but ultimately, farmers themselves need to individually and collectively take responsibility

Now is the time for farmers, when working with slurry, to think SAFE and act accordingly!