An unfortunate situation that could have been prevented

This week I had the unpleasant experience (once again) of talking with a contract grower who was faced with a bill for pig death loss due to a ventilation failure. It’s not a lot of fun talking thru the sequence of events and having to tell them that the evidence points to negligence on their part and my opinion is that they should pay the bill.

At this site, for some reason the main breaker into one room of a double-wide tunnel finisher was either tripped or turned off. I say tripped or off because I didn’t talk directly with the person who reset the breaker, etc. The net consequence of this breaker being off was no electricity to the controller or ventilation fans in the room.

There was an emergency alarm at the site and it was wired for incoming power to the facility and high/low temperatures in both rooms. Because the alarm was wired to the incoming power and not the power to either room, it failed to detect the loss of power to an individual room within the facility.

However, the high temperature alarm functioned and called. The alarm was answered by a part-time employee of the farm who responded to the alarm by dialing the response code. He then left a message on the answering machine of one of the site owners but didn’t go to the site to verify the alarm. By the time the owner heard the message3+ hours later and checked on the site the pig deaths had occurred.

In our phone conversation, the grower also said one or more fans connected to the emergency override thermostats were covered for the winter. While there would have been no need for the emergency fan if the main breaker had remained on, this would also be a concern and evidence of negligence should the case go to court or arbitration for settlement.

While the grower was going to turn the bill into his insurance agent for payment under his general farm liability coverage, my experience is the insurance company will deny the claim. In this case the contract grower was negligent in failing to respond in a timely manner to the alarm. By responding to the alarm, was the employee supposed to then go to the site to check on the cause of the alarm or was the employee just supposed to pass on the alarm message, which he did by leaving a message?

For the pig owner, it doesn’t matter what happened and why. He had a death loss and is billing the grower for the loss because the loss was due to the grower’s error in not responding to the alarm in a timely manner. What was a profitable year in farming just took a reversal for the grower.

If you are involved as a contract grower or pig owner there are several lessons in the above situation that you can’t ignore:
• If an alarm functions, don’t ignore it, even if the last 10 calls were false – ignorance is negligence when it comes to assigning liability.
• Having an alarm for power on the incoming main line and not alarming both rooms for power means a failure can occur such as above and no alarm call will go out in the event of a loss of power.
• All pig spaces should be alarmed for both power to the space and high temperature. In the above case the high temperature alarm functioned and the deaths most likely could have been prevented had the alarm been responded to in a timely manner.
• High temperature alarms in grow-finish facilities should be set lower than 85F this time of year. Some systems target 75F once pigs weigh more than 125 lb. In the event of a ventilation failure, temperatures can rise faster than 1F per minute and deaths can occur beginning 30 minutes after the failure. Setting the alarm temperature too high shortens your response time.
• Be sure everyone you enter on the calling tree of the alarm knows their responsibilities. Turning an alarm off by dialing the response code and then leaving a voice mail for someone to check the site can be argued to be negligence if the case were to go to arbitration or court. With big pigs in a facility you only have 30 minutes from when the ventilation outage begins to implement some form of heat relief or restoration of ventilation or you risk pigs beginning to die.
• Emergency fans connected to override thermostats are there to operate the ventilation system in the event of a ventilation controller malfunction. They can’t function if they are sealed for winter weather. The best method I’ve seen for those wanting to stop air leaks at shutters from the emergency fans is to put 4 or 6 mil plastic behind the shutter and then cut 2-3 horizontal slits in the plastic. The plastic stops a majority of the cold drafts associated with shutters but the plastic will rip if the fan begins to operate.

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