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Worker crushed to death in trench: Farming firm fined £50,000

Gary Coutts was working at Mains of Annochie Farm in Ellon when the tragic incident occurred.
Gary Coutts was working at Mains of Annochie Farm in Ellon when the tragic incident occurred.

A farming company has been fined £50,000 after one of its workers was crushed to death when a trench collapsed in on him.

Gary Coutts was carrying out drainage works for A.T Wilson & Co at Mains of Annochie Farm in Auchnagatt, Ellon, when the soil caved in and left him trapped on January 28 last year.

Colleagues frantically dug away piles of mud that was pinning him inside as they fought to free the 32-year-old.

Farmer speaks of heroic efforts to try to save brother killed in tragic accident

Paramedics arrived at the scene shortly after, but it was too late.

Yesterday representatives at the firm appeared at Aberdeen Sheriff Court and admitted failing to carry out a proper risk assessment before they started carrying out the work.

The court heard Mr Coutts had been feeding livestock before he was asked to lend a hand to staff working on the drainage in one of the fields.

Fiscal depute Richard Brown said he had climbed down into the trench, which was 6ft high, 4.5ft wide and 46ft long, to clear material from the old drainage system.

He said Mr Coutt’s colleague Graeme Shand was helping for around 5-10 minutes, before getting back into a large Volvo digger to remove soil.

“At this time, a crack appeared in the right hand side of the trench (uphill). This wall then collapsed into the trench and onto Gary Coutts, tightly pinning him to the opposite wall. It is estimated that each cubic metre weighed between 1.6 and 1.8 tonnes,” he said.

“Shand immediately attempted to assist Coutts, and began digging mud away from around his head to clear his mouth. Coutts did not respond to Shand as this was happening. He then phoned Craig Coutts, Mr Coutts’ brother, for help.

“Alexander Michael Wilson (a partner in the business) also received a call for help from Shand. Both men attended the field and they managed to pull Mr Coutts free.

“Emergency services were called, and two fire crews, an ambulance and two on call GPs attended, all making efforts to try and save Mr Coutts.”

The court heard the farm worker had worked for the firm since July 2014 and lived in Oldmeldrum with his partner and daughter. The cause of death was given in the post mortem as a closed blunt force head injury.

The Health and Safety Executive’s investigation found no written risk assessment had been carried out and none of the control measures recommended in the HSG150, the organisation’s construction safety guidelines, were implemented to reduce the level of risk involved.

Mr Brown added: “There was no means that the trench could be accessed/exited safely. A ladder could have been provided but was not done. None of the control measures recommended in HSG150 had been put in place to reduce the risk of harm.

These could have included shoring equipment to reinforce the walls or to batter back the walls.

In his interview with police, Alexander Michael Wilson said he “was always aware of the risks of working at depths”. The HSE guidance also says that no soil can be relied upon to support its own weight.

Mr Brown said Alexander Thomson Wilson, the other senior partner, claimed “everything looked fine” when he attended the site the morning before the incident took place.

Yesterday the company admitted failing to make a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks involved in excavating a drainage trench and failing to implement and maintain a safe system of work in relation to the excavation of a trench.

Representing the firm defence agent Vikki Watt said: “The partnership has gone above and beyond what is legally necessary for health and safety since the incident.”

She added the company had since been using the services of a health and safety specialist, and Craig Coutts continues to work at the farm.

Sheriff Alison Sterling said: “I take the view that this is a serious case for two reasons. Firstly, Mr Coutts lost his life. Secondly, this was foreseeable and avoidable.

“Mr Coutts’ brother remains employed by them. He says that they are good, caring employers, neighbours and friends. The sentence I impose can in no way make up for the loss of Mr Coutts.”

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