'This was Arthur's life and his joy': Farm business fined £50,000 over Norfolk grain silo death of owner's son
PUBLISHED: 10:03 11 March 2017 | UPDATED: 14:23 11 March 2017
A company was today fined £50,000 after a man suffocated while working in a grain silo on his father's farm.
Arthur Mason, 21, died while cleaning one of the 12 silos at Hall Farm, Fincham, in 2014.
Today 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.
Arthur’s father Hugh Mason is the sole shareholder and director of the firm.
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,” Ms Le Fevre said, 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.
However, a statement from HSE inspector Alastair Mitchell said standing on both moving and static grain was dangerous.
Mark Balysz, mitigating, said Mr Mason told him standing on static grain had been common practice in the more than 50 years the farm had been operating.
“He considers this as Mr Mitchell’s perspective as an expert,” he said. “I approach it from the perspective of a farm who have been doing this for decades.”
Ms Le Fevre said on July 9, 2014, history student Arthur had been working with 16-year-old Jamie Legg and by 9am the pair had cleaned one or two silos.
Fellow worker Mark Funge had seen Jamie walk past, and assumed he was going to release some grain. He returned, and then left again, with Mr Funge assuming it was to stop the release.
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.”
A sledge hammer was used to break an access panel and although emergency services were called to the scene, Arthur was pronounced dead.
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.
In mitigation, Mr Balysz said although he was representing the company, it was impossible to ignore Hugh Mason was Arthur’s father.
“The family have farmed the same land for hundreds of years,” he 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.”
He said while he recognised it was unusual to include emotive submissions in cases of this type, he felt it was appropriate due to the relationship.
“No fine will send any message stronger to Hugh Mason as the shareholder that he not already heard.
“The publicity associated with the loss of a son by a farmer will have the deterrent required, sending that message to farmers in the locality and nationwide as to the importance of adhering to safe systems of work.”
He said employees had since undertaken health and safety training.
But he also said that health and safety guidance advised risk assessments be filled out by those with experience.
“In that regard, Chris Legg had vast experience,” he said, and the warnings given in that assessment were the experience of Mr Legg.
But he recognised the practices advised may not have been appropriate.
“That system is criticised but it was based on the vast experience of those who put that risk assessment together.”
He also said it seemed people had not been stepping onto the static ladder when grain was being emptied.
“People were standing on the grain as it was emptied slowly and that was wrong.”
Judge Stephen Holt, who was passed a family photo album from the defence before he retired to consider sentence, 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.”
Handing the company a fine of £50,000 he said: “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 will also pay costs of £22,000.
Father’s feelings of ‘grief, loss and guilt’
Mr Mason, because of his position as director, had not submitted a victim statement, but Mark Balysz, mitigating, made his feelings clear in court.
Mr Balysz said: “He has not been offered at any stage the opportunity to express his feelings of grief, loss and guilt. Or how his life has been crushed.
“Feeling compounded by the fact it was his farm, his company, that brought this devastation about.”
He added: “I have not met the man once when he has not cried genuine tears in front of me.
“Hugh Mason does not care about the fine, he has been punished enough.”
He said since his son’s death, Mr Mason had set up a charity in his name, called Moth in a China Shop.
Previously, Mr Mason said: “If Arthur had lived a full life, he would have got married, had kids and gone on to do some good for others as that was his nature. Arthur can’t do that now but the silver lining of this cloud is that I would set up a charity to do the good that he would have done.”
A victim personal statement was read from Arthur’s mother, Kay Mason Billig, who is a South Norfolk councillor.
In it, she said she was still “numb with shock” and had to give up work - after initially struggling through - due to the heartbreak.
She said she had experienced suicidal thoughts and wished it had been her who died instead of her son.
“Every time I see someone who resembles him my heart lurches,” she said.
She added friends had stayed away as they had not known what to say or how to act around her.
In a statement she added: “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.”
‘A gent and a pleasure to coach’
Arthur was a former student at Langley in Loddon, where he studied between 2007 and 2010. He was then a keen rugby player and history student at the University of Gloucestershire.
On hearing on his death, the university rugby club tweeted: “We love and will miss him beyond words #legend.”
Gloucester community rugby coach Dave Barley added: “Rest in peace Arthur Mason. A gent and pleasure to work with.”
His friend Samantha Leach tweeted: “So shocked that @Arthur_C_Mason is no longer with us. Shame to lose such an amazing person. Thoughts are with his family #RIP“.
At an inquest into his death in March last year heard how Arthur started working as a farm labourer on June 23, 2014.
In 2014, Dominic Findlay, headmaster at Langley who spoke on the behalf of all the staff at the school said: “Arthur was one of the best-liked, good-natured and good-humoured members of his year.
“From dressing up in chain mail to usher prospective parents into the history department at an Open Morning, to his rendition of Lola with Spencer Hart for the form album, to his obsession with James Bond themes, he will be fondly remembered and even more sadly missed.
“He visited the school very recently and a number of staff were able to catch up with him. It’s with great sadness and a sense of disbelief that we have to accept that we will not see him again. Our best wishes, thoughts and condolences go to his family at this devastating time.”
Health and Safety Executive’s warning
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.”
HSE Inspector Paul Unwin added: “This tragic incident led to the avoidable death of a young man. This death could easily have been prevented if his employer had acted to identify and manage the risks involved, and to put a safe system of work in place. There should be little need for anyone to enter such grain bins as it may be reasonably practicable to clean them remotely from outside”.
“The dangers associated with grain storage are well known and a wealth of advice and guidance is freely available from HSE and other organisations.”