A farming partnership in Surrey has been fined £36,000 after a man was “crushed” by five hay bales, which toppled and fell on top of him, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has said.

Christopher Rolfe of Horsham, West Sussex, sustained four rib fractures when the bales, each weighing 600kg, fell on top of him at Polesden Lacey Farm in April 2022.

After the incident, he underwent months of rehabilitation in order to regain his mobility.

An investigation led by the HSE found that the poorly constructed stack of bales had not been stacked on firm, dry, level and freely draining ground, but instead on top of old pallets as the barn floor was uneven and prone to waterlogging.

The bales were placed in vertical columns and were not tied in by alternating the layers so the bales overlap and stop the stack from splitting.

The company had also failed to identify safe working methods for unstacking bales, keeping the face racked back as bales were removed, the HSE said.

F Conisbee and Sons Ltd, of Ockham Road South, East Horsley, Surrey, pleaded guilty to breaching Regulation 10 (4) of the Work at Height Regulations 2005 and was fined £36,000 and ordered to pay £4,986 in costs at Staines Magistrates’ Court.

‘I always thought I’d be fine’

Rolfe, who was 26-years-old at the time of the incident, said that he used to be “a stereotypical young man in agriculture”.

“I always thought I’d be fine – as long as I got to drive a quarter of a million pound tractor down the road with everyone looking at me,” he said.

“Now that’s the last thing on my mind. I very much look at every piece of machinery in front of me and think how quickly can that thing kill me.

“I was lucky to come away with just a broken hip and leg fractures.”

Rolfe had to be airlifted to hospital where he underwent emergency surgery before starting months of rehabilitation to start walking again and caring for his then four-year-old son.

“I was later told that if I had gone by road to the hospital I would have died,” he said.

“But at the time, I didn’t even want to go to hospital. The biggest thing that went through my mind at the time was that I’d just ruined my summer!

“Having spoken to the staff at Kent Surrey and Sussex Air Ambulance, I’ve come to realise just how important they are. When I needed them, they were there.

“My son, who’s now seven is even a young ambassador for them. So something really good has come from a really bad situation.”

Rolfe said his outlook on what happened is that he cannot change it, but that he has to deal with what he has got.

Stacking bales

HSE inspector Sally Parkes said the accident would have been easily avoided if the farm had followed the guidance published by either the HSE of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) on the safe stacking of hay bales.

“Stacking bales requires skill and should be overseen directly by someone with knowledge of the industry guidance,” she said.

“Health and safety is a fundamental requirement of a sustainable farming business yet over the last 10 years, almost one person a week is killed and many more are seriously injured as a result of agricultural work.

“Even with the considerable financial stain on UK farming, prioritising health and safety not only ensures workers are kept safe but also improves well-being and health outcomes alongside supporting productivity and efficiency on farms.”