A weary farmer drowned when he slipped and fell into a slurry pit that should have been better covered, a court has heard.
William McMillan’s son and father carried out a desperate search through the six feet of slurry beneath a cattle shed when they realised he was missing last summer, Northern Ireland’s senior coroner was told.
The body of the 43-year-old, who had been working alone in the shed above the pit while his son spread slurry on fields, was finally located by an ambulance service crew that rushed to scene in Dromore, Co Down.
His son Ryan, who described how he had sifted through the slurry with a steel crow bar in a bid to find him, said his father had been working very hard in the lead up to his death.
“I think my father was tired on the day of the incident and I put this down to long work hours,” he stated.
The accident at the Redhill Road property happened less than ten miles from where, three months later, three members of the Spence family, including Ulster Rugby star Nevin, died when they were overcome by slurry fumes at their family farm near Hillsborough.
An inspector from the Health and Safety Executive (HSENI) told coroner John Leckey that there was evidence of slurry gas in the cattle shed above the pit, but he said he did not believe that caused Mr McMillan to fall in.
Inspector Dale Shirlow noted that a layer of slurry by-product had bubbled up through the slates and covered the floor of the shed in a slippy froth.
“It was most likely that he slipped on the floor and fell into the tank,” he said.
Mr Shirlow noted there were six mixing holes providing access to the pit, which was below the slated floor of the shed.
He said on the day of the incident last June safety covers and secondary grids had been removed from all six. Five were exposed and the other was covered by the slurry mixing machine.
The inspector said farmers should only open the access point where they are putting down the mixing equipment or pumping hose.
“If secondary grids and safety covers had been in place then this incident could have been prevented,” he said.
The farmer’s son told the court that they had started the process of mixing the slurry the night before and noticed the layer of froth had bubbled up between the slates and covered the floor.
“Effluent had got through the floor and left the floor of the shed nearly covered with like a misty cloud of froth over it,” he said.
Mr McMillan said it would not have been normal for such a volume of froth to come up over the slates.
“We left it that night thinking the bubbles would be down by morning but they hadn’t went down,” he said.
Mr Shirlow said the froth would have made the floor quite treacherous.
“It would be unusual to have such a froth layer covering the slates and that would have created the slippery conditions,” he said.
Mr McMillan described coming back into the shed to find no sign of his father.
“I tried to phone him but it went to voicemail,” he told inspectors after the incident.
He called his grandfather and both men then conducted a search.
“I used a six foot steel crow bar but I had to get on my hands and knees as the tank is about six foot deep,” he said.
The men then used 10 foot wooden poles to try and locate their loved one.
Mr McMillan said he did not believe his father was overcome by gas, noting that he had not been affected as he tried to search for him.
“As far as I’m concerned he slipped or stepped back and didn’t realise,” he said.
Pathologist Dr James Lyness found the cause of death as drowning.
The expert said it was not possible to tell whether Mr McMillan had been overcome by poisonous fumes prior to entering the pit.
“No tests would have been accurate enough to say if he had breathed in poisonous gas,” he told the court.
Mr Leckey highlighted HSE figures showing there were 12 farm fatalities in Northern Ireland last year, with the same number of deaths in 2011.
He said that at a previous farm death inquest he had made the point that if there was that incidence of fatalities in any other industry there would be questions in the Assembly or calls for a public inquiry.
The coroner then read a letter he had received from the HSE outlining the steps they were taking to tackle the issue.
This included an awareness campaign involving visits to more than 1,000 farms at the end of last year. A similar initiative is planned this spring.
Mr Leckey praised the “tremendous amount of work” the HSE had undertaken.
“All I can do is wish the health and safety well and express hope that the farming community, through the outreach activities of the health and safety and media, will listen and will heed advice that’s being given,” he said.
The coroner said he was aware of the financial pressures facing farmers and that last year’s bad weather had also put additional stress on the slurry spreading timetable.
But he said health and safety advice still had to be taken on board and acted on.
Finding Mr McMillan’s cause of death as drowning after slipping and falling into the slurry pit, Mr Leckey passed on his condolences to the family.
“Having been brought up on a farm I have a lot of sympathy for the plight of farmers in these difficult times and I find all these tragedies personally very upsetting,” he said.