A farmer and his two businesses have been hit with fines and costs of £145,000 for serious safety failings after a 29 year-old worker died following exposure to toxic gases at an anaerobic digestion (AD) plant.
Dorchester Crown Court heard how Matthew Pitt and David Bartlett were working at Lowbrook Farm, owned by Clifford Owen Yeatman, in Belchalwell, Dorset, when they were exposed to toxic gases during maintenance of the farm’s AD plant.
The plant was developed by Biogas Nord UK, of which Mr Yeatman was sole director.
On 24 June 2009, Mr Pitt and Mr Bartlett 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. Mr Pitt never regained consciousness.
An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found a number of unsafe practices and failings during both the construction and operation phases of the AD plant.
Officers also identified a previous similar incident, where 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 in 2008.
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 court heard. The masks were also not face-fitted or properly maintained.
Clifford Owen Yeatman, of Lowbrook Farm, Blandford Forum, Dorset, was fined £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. He also pleaded guilty to two further breaches of the act as a partner of CO and RA Yeatman and was fined £45,000.
His 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 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.
“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.”