by BETTER FARMING STAFF
An Ontario justice of the peace has dismissed charges against a Huron County hog farmer in connection with a flash fire in 2012 that severely injured the farmer and his employee. Dann Eedy, a contract hog finisher, faced two charges under the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act following a Sept. 30, 2012 fire at his Huron East farm near Seaforth. Eedy and Josh Purdy, a high school student who was Eedy’s part-time employee, both suffered burns to their upper bodies.
The Ontario Ministry of Labour laid the charges against Eedy’s numbered company following an investigation that included assistance from the Office of the Ontario Fire Marshall, the Electrical Safety Authority, the Ontario agriculture ministry and the Ontario Provincial Police.
The company, of which Eedy is the sole principal, was charged under the Act with failing to ensure that the equipment, materials and protective devices provided in the workplace were maintained in good condition and failing to take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for protecting an employee.
The charges related to light switches that were in poor condition in the barn and an explosion that experts testifying at the provincial offences trial said was caused by methane build-up ignited by a spark.
In an oral decision handed down in the Ontario court of justice Friday in Goderich, justice of the peace Helen Gale said that both men had suffered “immeasurably” from the incident. Expert reports and testimony indicated that even if the light switches had been in good condition, “this did not appear to be a factor,” she said, and referred to a report that indicated there were 70 potential ignition sources located in the hallway where the fire took place.
Gale described the incident as having “unique” and “unprecedented” aspects that found no parallel in case law cited by lawyers for the Crown and the defence.
It was not reasonable to expect Eedy to be aware of the potential of methane accumulation in the hallway, she added, attributing the incident to a building design flaw. The barn had been designed and built a number of years ago by FGC Limited, referred to in one report as “a well-known pig barn contractor, with many years of experience in the industry.”
Nor had there been information available before the incident that might have alerted Eedy to the risk of methane accumulation, Gale said. She used as an example an Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs document about reducing fire risks on the farm published in 2011. The publication made no reference to the risks of methane accumulation, she noted.
“Because it’s the court decision, it would be inappropriate for us to comment at this time,” said William Lin, Ontario Ministry of Labour spokesman, in a telephone interview.
“The Eedy family is certainly pleased with the result of the judge regarding this case, and that the issue, that the judge accepted, clearly involved the barn construction as the source of the fire ignition at that time,” said Eedy’s lawyer, Ted Oldfield. The family has filed a civil suit against the builder. Oldfield says the case is in a preliminary stage.
After Gale had finished reading the decision, Sandra Eedy, Dann’s mother, burst into tears. The senior Eedy as well as Dann’s wife, Stephanie, had attended every day of the five-day hearing, which spanned late March to the end of May. Dann Eedy’s sister Jennifer and father, Robert, also often attended; Joshua Purdy and his parents and their lawyer, London-based David Nash, were regular presences as well.
There were several others who appeared to be monitoring the case and were seen to be taking notes.
Both Eedy, now 28, and Purdy, 18, remained in hospital for several weeks after the 2012 fire. They continue to undergo corrective medical procedures.
During the trial, Purdy testified that Eedy had been draining manure from a holding tank beneath one of the barn’s eight pig chambers to a central tank beneath a four feet wide hallway that ran through the centre of the building. Eedy, who had previously worked for a liquid manure hauler and applicator company, had planned to transfer the manure to a portable tank for spreading.
Purdy said he had finished his chores and was checking in with Eedy as the farmer was finishing up. “We came out of the room from draining the manure and closed the door behind us,” Purdy said. He said Eedy then turned to shut off lights using the brim of his ball cap to unhook wires because the switch and cover were missing from the switch box, as they were from some other switch boxes in the barn.
“There was a spark from the two wires being unhooked,” Purdy said. Immediately a flame blew up to the roof.
Purdy ran towards the loading chute exit and jumped into a puddle on the farm’s driveway. “I stood up and realized my right shoulder was on fire.”
Eedy denied Purdy’s claim that he had switched the light off by using his cap, showing the judge a scar on the back of his head that he said had been made when the hat’s plastic tab had melted into his head.
Eedy said that there had been no need to shut the lights off because they hadn’t been on in the first place. The pig room had plenty of natural illumination and it had been mid-day. The hall’s light switch was located at the other end of the corridor far from where they were standing, he added.
Eedy recalled adjusting the ventilation controls in the pig chamber after finishing the manure transfer. The door to the chamber was still open and he heard the fan change speed. He was closing the door when “the fire came to my left.”
“I heard a ‘woolf’ or a ‘whoosh,’” Eedy said. He put his right arm over his eyes and bent over and felt along the cement wall with his left hand to get a bearing. “It was extremely hot.” He began to run towards the end of the barn where the feed room was, running through most of the fire with his eyes shut.
In his testimony for the defence, Ron MacDonald, an agricultural engineer and expert in agricultural ventilation systems, had noted that an unusual manure pit design that included a large pump-out manure pit beneath a hallway with only passive ventilation contributed to the risk of methane accumulation. He said because the pump-out pit lacked ventilation, methane released when the manure was being transferred was forced through spaces in the hall’s floor washout covers (these plugged narrow openings to the pit used to drain wash water), and the only place it could escape to was the hall.
“Basically I would consider it a ticking time bomb,” MacDonald said. BF