At the end of last year, the young rugby star, Nevin Spence, died, along with his brother Graham and father Noel, in an accident at the family farm in Hillsborough, County Down. Graham had entered the farm's slurry tank in order to rescue a dog. He fell unconscious due to noxious fumes. He was followed firstly by his brother and subsequently by their father in attempted rescues. All three were overcome by the slurry gas.

Last week BBC News reported on the inquest into the tragic deaths. You can read the full story here.

During the inquest, the coroner commented, "Until this happened not everyone was aware of the dangers" while members of the Health and Safety Executive explained that every slurry tank was dangerous and the coroner encouraged farmers to read the HSE's guidance on slurry[1].

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that these dangers were highlighted. A previous story from BBC News described the death of a farm manager in December 2005 when he had climbed into a slurry tank.[2] The HSE website describes another incident in 2005 when a farm manager died while trying to rescue one of his staff who had entered a slurry tank to adjust a pump float switch. It was found that none of the farm staff understood the potential dangers from entering confined spaces and had entered other slurry tanks on the farm on a number of previous occasions.[3]

While lack of understanding of the dangers in the farming sector is unfortunately not uncommon, regulations governing confined spaces have been in force since January 1998.[4] These regulations apply to confined spaces such as closed tanks and silos where there is a reasonably foreseeable risk of serious injury from hazardous substances or conditions within the space. They prohibit work in any confined space that is not necessary. Where there is no alternative and entry is needed, work may only be carried out in accordance with a safe system of work and with suitable emergency procedures in place. This absence of awareness points towards a wider danger in the agricultural sector.

More than once the Prime Minister has commented that health and safety laws hold back business. This may be true in some industries. However, according to the Health and Safety Executive's statistics, less than 1.5% of the working population are employed in agriculture yet the sector is responsible for between 15% and 20% of fatalities to workers each year.[5] This statistic can be attributed to a number of factors, not least the work ethic of agricultural workers and a mentality to roll up their sleeves and get on with often demanding duties. HSE attributes lack of health and safety management skills and undervaluing of safety management in the sector as major factors yet agricultural businesses often struggle to understand and comply with increasingly Byzantine regulatory regimes.

While the impact of these accidents is immeasurable to the individuals and families, a fatal accident may have a significant economic impact. According to HSE figures, in 2010/2011 employers in farming, forestry and horticulture (i.e. the insurance industry) paid out over £6.1 million in compensation for fatal accidents.[6] Additional costs can be incurred as a consequence and an accident is also likely to lead to a detrimental impact on a farming business. The past decade has seen an increase in contract farming, while new business structures are being explored for the management of agricultural businesses. Perhaps it is now time that the agricultural sector receive greater assistance and support to close the gap on other sectors in health and safety