Clearing the air - Making safety a priority in 2018

Marg Land
March 05, 2018
I can feel my breakfast rising in my throat. “31-year-old worker died from exposure to manure gases, OSHA finds,” states the accident report on my computer screen.

“Decapitation by manure spreader,” reads another.

I gag a little bit.

How did I find myself here, down this internet-based rabbit hole of misery?

It started with a news report in the Sioux City Journal. A 54-year-old man from Alton, Iowa, was recently awarded $1.19 million by an O’Brien County jury following a 13-day trial. He had sued his employer plus the owner of the hog barn he worked in after being seriously injured by gas build-up in the building. As a result of the October 2014 incident, the man is unable to work and has permanent partial short-term memory loss.

Reading a description of the lead-up to the injury made me flinch. The employee had been power washing the interior of the confinement barn. On the same day, the barn owner began agitating and pumping manure from the pit beneath the confinement. When the employee returned the next morning to finish the cleaning job, he was overcome by hydrogen sulfide and other gases that had built up overnight in the unventilated barn. He lay unconscious on the floor of the barn’s office – he hadn’t even made it into the production area – for 15 to 30 minutes before being discovered. He wasn’t breathing at the time. According to his lawyer, he suffered two strokes, which resulted in brain damage, and it took him two years of physical therapy to be able to live independently.

The jury found that the owner of the barn – who had been doing the manure agitation and pumping – should have known the barn’s unventilated conditions could result in the injury or possible death of the employee. The barn owner was found 50 percent at fault, while the owner of the hogs was 35 percent responsible. The employee was considered 15 percent at fault for his own injuries.

I sigh. Another life altered by the effects of hydrogen sulfide. And it could have been prevented. A jury in O’Brien County, Iowa, easily realized that. It took them only three hours to find for the employee.

A basic search on the internet finds you page after page after page of safety bulletins, all involving hydrogen sulfide and manure gas. And one of the first safety rules is: “Whenever a pit that is under a confinement house is being agitated, people should stay out of the building, ventilation of the house should be maximized and animals should be removed.”

It’s common sense. Ventilate the building. Don’t let gas build up. Keep people and critters away until the potential for gas accumulation up is over. Simple stuff.

Of course, when it comes to life, nothing is ever simple, especially on the farm. Pressures build, corners are cut, time ticks away. But stop and think. Someone’s life may depend on it, including your own.

I’m tired of reading accident reports, horror stories filled with what-ifs and might-have-been. Stay safe out there in 2018.

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