England

Apple farm boss Andrew Stocker jailed over deaths

Andrew Stocker at Winchester Crown Court
Image caption Andrew Stocker encouraged a practice known as "scuba diving" to retrieve the apples

A farm manager has been jailed for the manslaughter of two workers who died after being sent into a nitrogen-filled store while holding their breath.

Scott Cain and Ashley Clarke suffocated in the apple container, where the oxygen level was 1%.

They were trying to retrieve apples for an agricultural competition.

Andrew Stocker, who was boss of the fruit farm at Tory peer Lord Selborne's Hampshire estate, was jailed for two-and-half years.

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

Image copyright Hampshire Police
Image caption Scott Cain, 23, and Ashley Clarke, 24, were both assistants at the farm and were found lying on crates of apples
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Media captionScott Cain's mother Sherilyn O'Reilly and Ashley Clarke's father Ian spoke outside court when Andrew Stocker was convicted last month

The pack house where the men died has since closed, Winchester Crown Court heard.

During the trial, it was heard Stocker encouraged the practice nicknamed "scuba diving" in which workers held their breath while trying to retrieve apples.

Apple storage: What are the risks?

  • Apples are generally placed in controlled atmosphere (CA) stores for longer-term preservation, while refrigerated stores are used in the short-term
  • In CA stores, such as the ones used by the Blackmoor Estate, the oxygen level is reduced, nitrogen is increased and there are higher levels of carbon dioxide
  • Adverse physical effects can be seen when oxygen levels drop below 19.5% - with 4% enough to render someone unconscious after two breaths
  • In this case, the oxygen level was 1%
  • Normal practice would be to put samples in a small tray or a net within easy reach of the hatch if they were needed for a competition
  • Apples are usually retrieved using a pole with a hook on the end - "Under no circumstances do you place a person or a part of your body into the store"

Source: Adrian Barlow, English Apples & Pears Ltd.

Stocker, 57, of The Links, Whitehill, Bordon, Hampshire, had denied manslaughter, but admitted exposing the men to a risk of death.

He was on holiday in the Maldives at the time of the men's deaths, but had left instructions.

Mr Cain, 23, and Mr Clarke, 24, who were both assistants at the farm in Liss, got in through a small hatch in the roof of the sealed container and were found lying on crates of apples.

Image copyright Hampshire Police
Image caption The apples the men were looking for were to be entered in a fruit show in Kent
Image caption The apples were accessed by opening a hatch in the roof of the container

Colleagues and paramedics attempted to revive them but were unsuccessful and both men were declared dead at the scene.

The apples the men were looking for were to be entered in the Marden Fruit Show in Kent.

The prosecution said Stocker was a keen participant in the competition and took the "kudos" of winning very seriously.

He knew the best samples could only gathered by someone entering from the top hatch and making a selection, the court heard.

Adrian Barlow, chief executive of growers' group English Apples & Pears Ltd, said the incident was unusual.

"It would be wrong of me to suggest that nobody in the industry never takes a risk, it's human nature, but I've never ever heard, or from other people, reference to a 'scuba diving' practice to cut corners and save time," he said.

Mr Cain was 23, engaged and had a young child, and had been working at Blackmoor Estates since 2009 as a pack house assistant.

Mr Clarke, 24, who was also engaged, had been working as an assistant checking the quality of fruit for eight months.

His parents Ian and Sharon Clarke said they recognised Mr Stocker was "not a bad man and did not mean to harm Ashley". but "his negligent actions led to his death".

"We as a family... will be serving a life sentence as we try to come to terms with the loss of a son and brother who we shall never see again."

All operatives have reviewed their operating procedures, equipment and security since the deaths.

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".

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