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Coop cleanout proves nearly fatal

Even a small chicken coop can hide big dangers as organic matter breaks down

It was when the clucking and scratching of the chickens started to sound like a beautiful serenade that Rick Kurbis knew something was seriously wrong.

“I’d been in the chicken coop for about half an hour cleaning and then I heard what sounded like the chickens singing, or more accurately it sounded like their clucking and their toes and beaks were making some sort of music,” said the owner of Kurbis Country Market, recalling the events of February 13. “I actually leaned on my shovel and listened for a moment, before I quickly realized this was not right.”

By the time Heather Kurbis reached her husband, he was laying face down in the snow just outside of the chicken coop, which is used to house free-run hens.

“He was kind of trying to shovel snow into his mouth, but he was doing it very weakly, trying to get the taste out of his mouth,” she said, adding that while he was having trouble talking, Rick did get out two very important words — chicken fumes.

Heather knew she had to call 911, but her husband begged her not to leave him alone.

“I do remember asking her not to leave me, I felt terrible, I felt like I was dying, I’m not sure what dying feels like exactly, but I felt so terrible and I knew I did not want to be left alone,” he said.

After some reassuring words and a quick assessment of his symptoms, Heather ran to a phone and dialled 911. Luckily, an empty ambulance was nearby and it arrived at their Dencross-area farm a mere five minutes after the emergency call was made.

Paramedics immediately gave Rick oxygen and rushed him to Beausejour Hospital, where he remained for two days as doctors tried to figure out exactly what had caused his collapse. Their best guess is that he was poisoned by hydrogen sulphide.

Kurbis says he’s gone public with his story because he wants farmers to be aware of this risk.
photo: Shannon VanRaes

“That is what they are suspecting. There is no way to test for it once you’re poisoned, but with all the symptoms I had, that is the conclusion the doctors came to,” he said. Whatever toxin caused the close call, it had dissipated by the time a workplace health and safety officer arrived to test the coop’s air quality.

Not surprising

Glen Blahey, an agricultural safety and health specialist with the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association, isn’t surprised that hydrogen sulphide may have been the culprit.

“It’s a very toxic gas that’s produced through the aerobic decomposition of animal waste,” he said, adding that it’s critically important to ensure fresh air is flowing through any work space used to house livestock.

Additionally, a risk assessment should be done to determine what type of masks, respirators or goggles should be used in any particular space or during any particular task.

“If there is material in an area that has restricted air movement and that material has been decomposing or breaking down, there are several areas of concern and obviously one of them is the release of gases that may displace oxygen or may in fact be toxic, such as hydrogen sulphide,” Blahey said. “Poultry manure can also house infectious organisms, everything ranging from avian influenza to E. coli to salmonella and so on, so any time anyone is going to be working in an environment where they are dealing with or handling animal waste, there are a couple of key factors to take into consideration.”

Making sure someone is always available to provide assistance should you need it is key to staying safe, Blahey said. Whether you’re working with livestock, machinery, grain or just cutting grass, someone has to have your back, by knowing where you are and what you are doing, he stressed.

“I will never clean the chicken coop when I am home alone again,” said Rick, who credits his survival to two factors — the grace of God and having a two-way radio on his person, which he used to alert his wife to his distress. Now he is using a hydrogen sulphide detector whenever he works in the chicken coop and makes sure to also wear a dust mask that prevents him from inhaling particulate matter.

Relieved that the ordeal is behind him, Rick said he never thought this sort of thing could happen to him. However, now that it has, he wants to get the word out that whatever size farm you operate and no matter how experienced you are, danger is present.

“I’ve been cleaning my own chicken coop for about 10 years and I thought we are aware, we’ve had conversations about this and even talked about stories about waste systems… where one guy goes in and then a second guy goes in to help and they both end up collapsing and dying,” he said. “But I was always under the assumption that was just because of concentrated, industrial situations.”

Heather said the biggest take-away from the experience is just how important it is to be aware of all the different dangers that are out there and to have a plan in place in case something does go wrong.

“On the farm there are a thousand things that can go wrong at any time, whether it’s a large farm or a small farm,” she said. “And it seems to be that the busier you are, the greater chance there is of something going wrong, so it’s very important to always have some kind of safety plan in place and some way to contact others for help in case you need it.”

About the author


Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.


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