Apple farm boss jailed over deaths - Updated

3 July 2015

On the same day that HSE released its latest statistics (1 July) showing that agriculture continues to top the ‘Worst Industry’ list, the farm manager of Lord Selbourne's Blackmoor Estates in Hampshire was jailed for two and a half years at Winchester Crown Court.

Andrew Stocker had pleaded not guilty to the manslaughter of two workers who died after they had been sent into a nitrogen-filled apple store while holding their breath. Mr Stocker was on holiday in the Maldives at the time of the incident but had left instructions and encouraged the unsafe practice (known as "scuba diving") used on this occasion to retrieve a selection of apples to enter into a fruit show.

The oxygen level was just 1% and both men were found collapsed on top of the apple boxes, having climbed in through a small hatch on the top of the store.  They were declared dead at the scene.

Blackmoor Estate Ltd, which pleaded guilty in January to three offences related to contravening health and safety regulations, was also fined £75,000 and ordered to pay costs.

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".

This is not the first custodial sentence handed down for an offence relating to farming activities.  See the report on the death of a 16 year old student in 2001. He was not adequately trained to operate a telehandler and was involved in an accident on the road.

With the size of fines likely to increase significantly following the new Sentencing Guidelines to the Courts, and the increasing likelihood of custodial sentences being handed out, this is a sobering thought for the industry. 

At the time of writing there appears to have been little coverage of this significant case – only on the BBC News website. Let us hope that it gets the media coverage it deserves to encourage everyone to take stock and (re)consider their work methods – even at times of great pressure and stress. 

UPDATE: Blackmoor Estates Ltd were also required to pay £30,000 costs. Further information on this case, including comments made by the Judge and the deceased's families is now available in media coverage, eg  Farmers Weekly online.

RIG Vice-Chair Alan Plom said: “With no apology for the pun related to the term ‘scuba-diving’ used to describe the system of work used in this tragic case,  I sincerely hope that that this punitive sentence will stop others from cutting corners and just ‘diving in’, holding their breath, and hoping for the best?"