HSE issues fine to firm for harmful poison use

A farming company in East Anglia has been fined more than £20,000 after it pleaded guilty to unlawfully using a dangerous poison to control rabbits.

Workers from the company were seen trespassing in a private garden and when approached by the owner told her that they were “gassing rabbits”.

They offered no further explanation about the substance they were using or its dangers and were asked to leave the property.

The owner found that the workers had blocked several rabbit holes and discarded an empty container of Phostoxin, a vertebrate control agent.

What is Phostoxin?

Phostoxin is a compound of aluminium phosphide, a highly toxic substance which reacts with normal atmospheric moisture to release phosphine gas; lethal to all animals at low concentrations in the air in nests and burrows.

Used in tablet form Phostoxin may remain active for a few days after being placed in the ground. Because of this Phostoxin tablets should never be used to treat nests or burrows within 3 metres of an occupied building.

To prevent the possibility of the tablets being dug up while they are still active, children, domestic and farm animals should be kept away from the treated areas for at least 2 days.

Phostoxin tablets should never be placed or allowed to remain on the ground surface.

Workers using Phostoxin must be fully trained in the use of aluminium phosphide and must obey all appropriate and necessary safety instructions.

It is a statutory requirement that a special applicator is used for placing the Phostoxin tablets in the ground and that suitable respiratory protective equipment is worn when working with the substance.

Investigation by the HSE

Inspections by Natural England and pest controllers from Rentokil discovered that the company had treated more than 50 burrows in the garden and along the public lane adjoining the property. No precautions had been taken to protect the householder or members of the public from the risks associated with possible exposure to the dangerous chemical, nor had they been informed of its use.

When the matter was investigated by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) it was found that the workers were not properly trained in the use of the chemical, they had no certificates to show their competence, nor had the company provided them with any personal protective equipment (PPE)

The HSE prosecuted the farming company for breaching Sections 2(1) and 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, which state that it is the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees. That duty includes:

  • Ensuring the safety and absence of risks to health in connection with the use and handling of substances.
  • Providing the information, instruction, training and supervision necessary to ensure the health and safety at work of employees.

Employers also have a duty to the public to ensure those who may be affected by the work being carried out are not exposed to risks to their health and safety.

The company pleaded guilty and was fined £15,000 plus costs of £4,967.10 and a victim surcharge of £120.

A spokesman for the HSE said “the cavalier way in which the dangerous compound had been applied could easily have caused harm to the owners of the private garden and also to those members of the public, their children and their dogs using the lane.

“Products such as 'Phostoxin' are dangerous compounds and can easily cause severe harm or, indeed, fatalities if not used properly by trained and competent persons.

“Pesticides are carefully regulated to protect people and the environment. HSE will take robust action against those who unnecessarily put the lives of workers and the public at risk and against those who endanger the environment through inappropriate use of pesticides.”

Gaynor Haliday, Legal researcher

Gaynor Haliday, Legal researcher