Most tragic farm deaths
The tragic deaths of Noel Spence and his two sons, Graham and Nevin, in an accident on their dairy farm outside Hillsborough, Co Down, last Saturday evening have shocked the farming and rugby communities across Ireland.
With that shock comes the realisation that this could have happened to almost any farm family. Everyone could sense just how the tragedy unfolded over a very short time as the instinct to assist others kicked in ahead of any other thoughts.
The exact circumstances around the deaths remain the subject of an investigation by the Health and Safety Executive in Northern Ireland (HSENI), but what is clear is that the men were overcome by slurry gas (hydrogen sulphide) when they entered a below-ground slurry tank.
Reports suggest that a pup fell into the tank and when Noel Spence went into the tank to rescue the dog he was overcome. It was the instinctive reaction of his sons to try to help him. Either way, what the Spences were doing last Saturday was no different to what regularly happens on very many farms throughout Ireland.
The Spence family own a successful dairy farm, milking over 200 cows. This was efficiently run by Noel and Graham Spence. Nevin Spence was a rising star of Irish rugby.
At a news conference earlier this week, president of the Ulster Farmers Union (UFU) Harry Sinclair said that the deaths had had a 'profound effect' on the farming community.
He said that local farmers had rallied around the family and that there had been a queue of neighbours wanting to help milk the cows only hours after the tragedy occurred.
He urged all farmers to take a look around their farms and fix anything that represented a risk to health and safety. "Do it now; don't wait. Be safe and think safe," urged Sinclair.
Recent statistics relating to farm deaths in Northern Ireland are alarming. Farming is now Ireland's most dangerous profession.
Since January 2011, 23 people have lost their lives on NI farms. Six of these deaths were related to accidents involving slurry.
The number of farm related deaths has effectively doubled in recent years and farming in Northern Ireland now accounts for over 70% of work-related deaths. There are also many more 'near misses' that are never reported.
This latest tragedy has led to calls for gas detectors or monitors to be fitted in tanks or used by farmers when working with slurry.
While further research into the technology available would be worthwhile, to date it has not been seen as a practical suggestion; by the time the detector has picked up the hydrogen sulphide gas, it may already be too late.
The advice from HSENI remains to close over all openings on a slurry tank when mixing slurry, stay out of the house when mixing (especially for the first 30 minutes), open all doors to ensure a good air flow and never enter a slurry tank.
The tragedy last weekend will gradually slip from the focus of the mainstream media and the wider general public, but it should remain in the minds of every farmer across Ireland.
Too many farmers suffer from the attitude that 'it will never happen to me'.
But, nothing, including the farm business, is more precious than life itself.
Our sincerest condolences to Noel's wife, Essie, her daughters, Emma and Laura, Graham's wife, Andrea, their children, and the wider family circle.
Source: Argentine Beef Packers S.A.