As the commencement of the closed period for slurry spreading approaches, the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland (HSENI) is urging farmers to take extra care when mixing slurry.
Slurry gas is a mixture of gases, including the extremely poisonous gas - hydrogen sulphide.
Even a low concentration of hydrogen sulphide can knock out your sense of smell so you cannot detect its presence.
At higher concentrations, you will rapidly find it harder to breathe and become confused - and at certain concentrations, just one breath can kill.
Mixing slurry can be a dangerous job as the gas is released very quickly, and in large quantities, as soon as the mixing starts, the HSENI stressed.
The first 30 minutes are the most dangerous, so it is important to remove all stock from the shed before mixing starts and for farmers to leave the building as soon as the mixing starts.
It is also vitally important to stay out of the shed for at least 30 minutes after the mixing starts.
As part of its campaign, the HSENI is highlighting Alex Walker's story. The Antrim farmer experienced a near-fatal incident when mixing slurry in February-2001.
"I was running around the farm trying to get A; B; and C done as quickly as possible. I wasn't thinking that I was about to spend the next 24-hours on a hospital bed." Alex recalls.
On a mild spring day, with no wind, Alex moved the livestock to another part of a shed; attached the mixer pump which began mixing the slurry, whilst he went to feed livestock in another yard.
"When we came back, about 15 minutes later, which was around the amount of time in those days that you should be out of the house."
Alex was walking towards the mixer and to the area that it was mixing when he "very quickly got a feeling that something wasn't right."
"The first feeling that I got was my skin felt quite, almost tight. It was just like somebody had placed a mask over my face and sucked all of the air out of my lungs." Alex said.
"What I was breathing wasn't air; it was a very strange sensation. There was no smell and I couldn't see it."
"I quickly realised that I was being gassed. Even though we had moved the cattle away to another part of the house, A they were still there and B - my father was still in amongst them."
"I knew that I had to get the pump switched off no matter what. I held my breath; ran for the tractor; opened the door and pulled the throttle back until there were no revs."
Alex ran out of the shed as felt like as if someone was pulling him back.
"I was almost out of the house and then everything went black,” Alex recalled.
Alex was hospitalised and returned home the following day; he experienced tiredness and severe headaches for days as a result of oxygen starvation.
Alex now realises that this accident could have been prevented.
He noted that there was no wind on the day in question - "it was absolutely still".
"Looking back, that was the biggest mistake that I made. I should not have been mixing slurry on that day."
Alex highlighted that there is pressure on farmers and agricultural contractors to work to slurry application deadlines. He advises all concerned parties to avoid taking risks and to plan in advance.
“On a still day, that gas can't get away and if you are in there, you won't get away either."
"I remember running out of that shed thinking this is it - it is over," Alex concluded.
"Stop and think"
Malcolm Downey, who heads up the farm safety team at HSENI, appeals to farmers mixing slurry before the commencement of the closed period.
Mr Downey said: “Do not take any chances when mixing slurry, your life may depend on it. Stop and think about the entire job ahead and ensure you follow the slurry mixing code."
The slurry mixing code:
- Keep children away from the area at all times when working with slurry if possible, mix on a windy day;
- Open all doors;
- Take all animals out of the building before starting to mix slurry;
- Use outside mixing points first;
- If slats are removed, cover exposed areas of the tank beside the pump/mixer to stop anything falling in;
- Start the pump/mixer – then get out and stay out of the building for as long as possible - at least 30 minutes;
- If you have to go into the building, make sure that another adult who knows what you are doing stays outside and can get help if needed;
- If you have to re-enter to move the pump or change the direction of the pump, leave the building as soon as this is done – do not go back in for as long as possible – at least another 30 minutes.
- Rely on filter type facemasks;
- Use gas monitors as a substitute for working safely;
- Have naked flames near slurry, as slurry gas mixture is flammable;
- Stand close to the exhaust of a vacuum tanker when it is being filled.