Two men fined for breaches of health and safety regulations over farm death

Deceased was killed when the sides of a trench collapsed on top of him, court hears

Two men have been fined for breaches of health and safety legislation following the death of a farm worker who was killed when a trench collapsed on top of him while laying a drainage pipe on a farm in Co Cork over three years ago.

Farmer Pat Kelleher (50) of Roovesmore, Coachford, was fined €10,000 and contractor, John O'Mahony (78), from O'Mahony's Place, Clondrohid, was fined €1,000 for breaches of health and safety regulations arising out of the death of Denis Cullinane (33) from Roovesbeg Coachford.

Health and Safety Authority Inspector Frances Murphy told Cork Circuit Criminal Court that Kelleher was carrying out drainage work on his farm at Roovesmore, Coachford on September 28th, 2017 and had engaged O'Mahony to carry out the work using his digger.

O’Mahony had dug a trench for a drainage pipe and both Kelleher, and his employee, Mr Cullinane, were at opposite ends in the trench which was approximately one metre wide and 4.6 metres wide when the wall of the trench collapsed on top of Mr Cullinane who was trapped beneath the collapse.

“There were no support systems in place (for the trench), no safety provisions in place,” said Ms Murphy, adding that a trench that deep should have been buttressed internally with supports or else had its sides stepped back so that it would not collapse.

Ms Murphy agreed with defence barrister for Kelleher, Donal O’Sullivan BL and defence counsel for O’Mahony, Siobhan Lankford SC that both men had co-operated fully with the HSA investigation into the incident and that neither man had any previous convictions for health and safety breaches.

Referring to his client, Kelleher, Mr O’Sullivan said: “He was very shocked by this. It is my understanding he was traumatised. It was not a case of sending someone in to do something he would not do himself. He was in the trench as well when this happened.”

He said that Kelleher had carried out trenching work on his farm before but never trenching to a depth of 4.6 metres and he fully accepted that he should have ensured that there were supports in place to prevent the side of the trench collapsing as happened.

Referring to her client, O'Mahony, Ms Lankford said that he was 75 at the time of the incident and had one digger which he operated himself but since this incident he had no longer operated his digger and no longer did any excavation or plant work.

Both lawyers said their clients were deeply remorseful and apologetic over what happened and Mr O’Sullivan said his client, Kelleher knew the Cullinane family from Roovesbeg well as they were neighbours and he had commiserated with them in the normal way on their loss.

In their Victim Impact Statement, the Cullinane family spoke of their huge loss since Mr Cullinane’s death in the accident, describing him as somebody who was a hard worker and was always willing to help people.

“We as a family understand it was an accident but if one other family can be saved the trauma and hurt by this accident, we feel at least some else’s family might not have to go through this again,” said the Cullinane family in their victim impact statement.

Judge Ó Donnabháin said: “It is appalling that two experienced men, one a Hi-Mac driver and the other an experienced farmer – should excavate a trench on loose ground without trenching the trench. There is nothing new in this.

“There is nothing that would require major experience. A few planks of wood (supported) in the hole would have kept it open. It does not take a lot to understand that – four-and-a-half metres deep of loose soil. It was inevitably going to collapse. The neglect here is very fundamental.

“It could have been easily avoided with the slightest care. And the unfortunate Denis Cullinane lost his life. Their remorse is genuine. All three men were from the same local community. They were known to each other.

“I take the point that Mr Kelleher was hands-on and he did not hand it over to someone else to do it but it is a very fundamental breach by him which caused a man to lose his life. It could have been easily foreseen and avoided.”

Acknowledging both men entering guilty pleas to the separate charges, thus sparing the state the expense of a trial, Judge O Donnabhain fined Kelleher €10,000 for the offence he pleaded guilty to while he fined O’Mahony for €1,000 for a separate offence that he admitted.

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times