Company fined £50,000 over death of student in Fincham farm silo tragedy

Court news.
Court news.

A farm has been fined £50,000 after a university student died when he sunk under a mountain of wheat while cleaning out a storage tank.

Arthur Mason, 21, climbed inside the silo but became immersed under tonnes of grain at the farm owned by his father.

His colleagues heard his “muffled shouts” but he could not raise his head above the grain, and efforts to use a pipe to help him breath failed.

On Friday, Maurice Mason Ltd was sentenced at Norwich Crown Court, having previously admitted failing to discharge its duty to ensure health, safety and welfare at work.

Prosecutor Sarah Le Fevre, for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), told the court external contractors had previously carried out the work, where they would empty the silos before cleaning them.

But this practice changed around 10 years ago and employees were required to enter the silo, stand on the grain surface and clean the exposed sides.

Another employee would then release some of the grain from the bottom of the silo, while the worker inside would stand on a ladder.

“This method was in itself unsafe,” said Ms Le Fevre, but added there was a risk assessment in place which told employees not to stand on moving grain, to wear a harness and to make sure there was another person on hand to operate the bottom door.”

The court heard how Arthur, a history student at the University of Gloucester, died while cleaning one of the 12 silos at Hall Farm, in Fincham, Norfolk, in July 2014.

Farm worker Mark Funge rushed to help Arthur when he heard “muffled” screams from the grain silo he was cleaning.

Ms Le Fevre said: “Mark Funge then heard Arthur shouting. It was muffled but the background noise was quiet.

“He looked in the grain bin and saw Arthur’s hands and the top of his hat.”

Mr Funge climbed into the silo to try and pull Arthur free, but said: “The more I moved it away the more grain fell in.”

Ms Le Fevre also said at the time of the accident employees had no health and safety qualifications, including Chris Legg - who had been in charge of health and safety management of the farm.

Defending the firm, Mark Balysz said standing on static grain had been common practice in the more than 50 years the farm had been operating.

He said that although he was representing the company, it was impossible to ignore Hugh Mason was Arthur’s father.

Mr Balysz said: “The company was established by Arthur’s grandfather in the 1950s and as soon as Arthur was old enough to decide for himself he moved back home with his father.

“And the two of them were not just father and son, they were friends.

“The night before Arthur’s death, father and son - as they often did - had discussed the future of the farm and how Arthur was to take over the running of it in 2017.”

A victim personal statement was read to the court by Arthur’s mother, Kay Mason Billig, in which she said she was still “numb with shock”.

Mrs Billing said: “Arthur was my eldest son, he was larger than life, fun-loving, a good person all round, he was only 21 when he died.

“His death has affected so many people, his family, his friends and his colleagues.

“I would like to personally thank the emergency services who tried so hard to save him.

“Farming accidents and accidents of this type involving enclosed spaces are alarmingly common.

“I urge farmers to take note of this verdict today and look hard at their safety procedures. No one should have to lose their life in such a preventable accident.

“For the sake of a few thousand pounds spent on health and safety, Arthur would still be alive today.

“Maurice Mason Ltd was prosecuted today but the culpability lies with the management.

“They are ultimately responsible for Arthur’s death and his father, Hugh Mason, will have to live with that for the rest of his life.”

Handing the company a fine of £50,000, Judge Stephen Holt said: “I find it really very distasteful having to carry out this exercise when we’re dealing with a young man’s death but the law says I have to.”

“This was Arthur’s life and his joy, his family and his farm. It seems to me he was held in the highest regard.

“I do hope this bring some kind of closure.”

The company have also been ordered to pay costs of £22,000.

Speaking after the hearing, Norman Macritchie, principal inspector for HSE, said: “On behalf of HSE may I extend my sincere sympathy to all the family of Arthur Mason and those affected by this tragic incident which led to today’s prosecution.

“This case arose following the avoidable death of a young man who was engulfed in grain and trapped.

“We tend to view grain in the benevolent light of the fruit of the harvest, for this reason we might not always appreciate just how dangerous it is when it is stored in bulk.

“Grain may behave like quicksand with liquid-like properties and it may develop void spaces. Once anyone starts to sink it is extremely difficult to stop becoming engulfed even if help is immediately at hand.

“So HSE’s message to our friends in the Norfolk farming community is quite clear: don’t walk on bulk grain and don’t let anybody else do so either.”