A GROUP of Northern Ireland farm safety experts could be meeting within days to test slurry gas detectors.
The news came on Thursday from one of the two Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) presidents, Barclay Bell.
The move comes after the tragic deaths on Saturday of three members of one farming household near Hillsborough in a slurry gas accident.
Noel Spence, 58, and his sons Graham, 30, and Nevin, 22, were buried on Wednesday in Ballynahinch at a funeral attended by thousands of people from across Northern Ireland and beyond. There was widespread admiration for the dignity and courage of the remaining family members.
As well as being a UFU president Mr Bell is also a member of the Farm Safety Partnership, which includes members of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the Department of Agriculture, the UFU and the Department of Enterprise.
“There would be a lot of discussion going on about this [slurry safety] at the minute,” he told the News Letter yesterday. “At the Farm Health and Safety Partnership at the minute the big thing is slurry gases. Our immediate intention in the UFU is that there has to be some sort of gas detector out there.
“There were detectors 10 to 15 years ago but maybe they were not suitable to detect some of the gases. The UFU would be very keen, with the [Farm Safety] partnership, to get some of these tested.”
There are gas detectors today that can “clip onto your belt”, he said. “If these can be calibrated we would see that as a good starting point.”
Detectors the UFU is aware of cost £150 to £200, he said. One model they are interested in testing is from Honeywell Analytics, which can detect hydrogen sulphide, the most dangerous gas given off by slurry.
“The Farm Safety Partnership was scheduled to meet at the beginning of October but we may think about moving it forwards to test a few of these things out,” he said.
“So we hope that the next meeting could take place on a farm. There is an urgency in the countryside after this tragedy.
“If it is calibrated very sensitively we think a detector could work. But we have learned in the past few days that they could be calibrated at the right level.”
Farmers are generally spreading slurry three or four times a year, so it is only when they are mixing it for spreading that gases are released and a detector might be necessary, he said.
“This has to be the simplest solution to the problem that we know of at this stage. The sooner we can get it tested and proven, the sooner we will be pushing to offer it to anyone who wants one.”
Without prejudice to the outcome of the ongoing HSE investigation at the Spence farm, Mr Bell also said the UFU would be keen to see departmental-backed changes to Ulster slurry tanks so that the only openings would be just big enough for agricultural pumps to be inserted, but no larger.
The UFU is also looking at the possibility of providing a scholarship to study farm safety issues, he said.
A spokesman for HSE said yesterday it could not yet comment on possible solutions to slurry gas risks as it is still investigating Saturday’s tragic events at the Spence farm.
The Agri-Food Biosciences Institute (AFBI), an agency of the Department of Agriculture, said that across much of Europe, slurry was not an issue. This is because arable farming is so common in other areas and animals are bedded on straw, which results in manure rather than slurry.
However, in Northern Ireland straw is not so available and the animal waste is collected as slurry.
AFBI has researched the production of hydrogen sulphide gas from slurry and the main conclusion is that it is always produced during mixing “and therefore neither livestock nor people should be in the associated building during the mixing process”.
Scottish dairy farmer Jim Shanks has studied methods of harnessing slurry gases as an alternative energy source in Denmark, Sweden, Germany and the US. One option to lower the gas risk, he says, is building a cable into the bottom of slurry tanks to allow a generator to blow air through it, which he said was quite expensive. On his own farm he occasionally puts aeration lances down into the slurry for the same purpose.
“However at the end of the day there is still gas down there,” he told the News Letter. “No matter what you do farming is always going to be like crossing the road. You think it is safe but there are always risks there.”