Advising with empathy and experience

Jail for farm manager following two deaths.

 

A farm manager has been jailed for the manslaughter of two workers who died after being sent into a nitrogen-filled store while holding their breath to try to retrieve apples for an agricultural competition.

Scott Cain, 23, and Ashley Clarke, 24, suffocated in the apple container, where the oxygen level was only one per cent, and were found lying on crates of apples.

Farm manager, Andrew Stocker, 57, boss at the fruit farm at Tory peer, Lord Selborne's, Hampshire estate, was jailed for two-and-half years at the hearing at Winchester Crown Court. Blackmoor Estate Ltd, which pleaded guilty to three offences related to contravening health and safety regulations in January, was fined £75,000 and ordered to pay costs.

During the trial, it was heard Stocker encouraged the practice, nicknamed "scuba diving", in which workers held their breath in the deadly atmosphere while trying to retrieve apples.

Stocker, 57, of The Links, Whitehill, Bordon, Hampshire, had denied manslaughter, but admitted exposing the men to a risk of death.

He was on holiday in the Maldives at the time of the men's deaths, but had left instructions. Scott Cain and Ashley Clarke, who were both assistants at the farm in Liss, got in to the pack house, which has since been closed, through a small roof hatch in the sealed container.

Colleagues and paramedics tried to revive them but were unsuccessful. Both men were declared dead at the scene.

The apples the men were looking for were to be entered in the Marden Fruit Show in Kent. The prosecution said Stocker was a keen participant in the competition and took the "kudos" of winning very seriously.

He knew that the best samples could be gathered only by entering through the top hatch and making a selection, the court heard.

  • Apples are generally placed in controlled atmosphere (CA) stores for longer-term preservation, while refrigerated stores are used in the short-term. In CA stores, such as those at the Blackmoor Estate, the oxygen level is reduced, nitrogen is increased and there are higher levels of carbon dioxide. Adverse physical effects arise when oxygen levels drop below 19.5 per cent - with 4 per cent enough to render someone unconscious after two breaths.

  • In this case, the oxygen level was only one per cent. Normal practice would be to put samples in a small tray or a net within easy reach of the hatch if they were needed for a competition and they would be retrieved using a pole with a hook on the end.

    Chief executive of growers' group, English Apples & Pears Ltd, Adrian Barlow, said the incident was unusual. "It would be wrong of me to suggest that nobody in the industry never takes a risk, it's human nature, but I've never ever heard reference to a 'scuba diving' practice to cut corners and save time."

    Mr Cain was engaged with a young child and had been working at Blackmoor Estates as a pack house assistant since 2009. Mr Clarke, who was also engaged, had been working as an assistant checking the quality of fruit for eight months.

    Mr Justice Akenhead told Stocker he had been "reckless" by ignoring clear guidelines that no-one should enter the storage units meaning it was "a disaster waiting to happen.”

    Personal injury and medical negligence partner at CNCI, Kim Daniells, said: “It is tragic, with all the genuine and horrific accidents that cannot be foreseen, that these two men should have lost their lives when their manager was well aware of the dangers of this highly hazardous practice. The lives of these two young men were effectively sacrificed simply for the possibility of a good result in a fruit show.”

 

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