No ventilation was used and the air quality was not tested or monitored in a small underground septic tank where two men worked and perished last month, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration reports.
OSHA has issued four serious citations and proposed $16,800 in fines against Stevens Electric & Pump Service, of Monmouth, ME, in the deaths of Richard Kemp, 70, of Monmouth, and Winfield Studley, 58, of Windsor, ME.
|OSHA issued four serious citations in the deaths of Winfield Studley (left) and Richard Kemp.|
The citations came just three weeks after the two men were fatally overcome by hydrogen sulfide fumes Sept. 27 while repairing a pump in a sewer tank at an inn in Kennebunkport, ME.
The cause of death was “hydrogen sulfide toxicity in a confined space with terminal inhalation of sewage,” authorities said.
OSHA cited the company for four serious violations related to permit-required confined-space work. OSHA alleges:
• The employer did not ensure the use of ventilating equipment in the work space.
• The space was not isolated as required before employees began working there.
• The air quality was not tested before the employees entered the space and was not monitored while they worked.
• Neither worker was wearing a chest or full-body harness with a retrieval line, as required for emergency rescue out of the space.
A serious violation occurs reflects “substantial probability” of death or serious injury from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known.
Employer: ‘They Chose Not to Use the Equipment’
Stevens Electric, a family-owned business that previously had a clean record with OSHA, did not respond Friday to a request for comment.
However, company owner Tim Stevens told the Portland Press-Herald that he may challenge the OSHA citations, because all of the required safety equipment was available on the truck at the site and the workers did not use it. Stevens also said that all of the company’s employees had received refresher safety training two weeks before the accident.
“I am not trying to say anything bad or negative about my employees, because they were my friends,” Stevens told the newspaper. “They chose not to use the equipment, and we don’t know why.”
He added: “It’s not the money so much. I just don’t want people to think that we’re a careless company, and I certainly don’t want people to think we don’t have the equipment on the job site.”
Widow Defends Employer
Charlotte Kemp, Kemp’s wife of 49 years, also told the newspaper that she did not hold the company responsible for her husband’s death. Her son and two grandsons still work for the company, which she considers a second family.
“How can you blame the people he worked for, if they gave him all the tools and he didn’t use them?” she told the Press-Herald.
Kemp said her husband “was careful and told her about all the training he got,” the newspaper reported.
The men might have gone down to try to make a quick adjustment, or one man might have perished trying to save the other, she said.
“Every Wednesday, they would have a safety meeting,” she told the paper. “But you know how it is; you get complacent. Everybody does.”
The company has 15 days from receipt of the citations to contest them or comply.
Kemp and Studley had been working on the pump in the 4-by-5-by-6-foot tank, accessed by a manhole, nine feet below ground.
Both Kemp and Studley were experienced workers, with more than 50 years of experience between them. However, neither man was wearing any breathing apparatus when their bodies were recovered, officials said.
Hydrogen sulfide (H2S) is a colorless, flammable, poisonous gas produced by bacterial breakdown of organic materials and human and animal wastes.
Although notorious for its “rotten egg” smell, high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide can instantaneously cripple a person’s ability to smell the gas at all and asphyxiate in a single breath, according to an OSHA Fact Sheet.
OSHA protocols and regulations detail safeguards for identifying, monitoring, entering and working in H2S environments. In general, respiratory protection and ventilation are required.
Time Frame, Penalties
OSHA concluded its investigation quickly, and the fine was relatively light.
“In this case, OSHA was able to obtain the information it needed to make a decision and issue the citations in a short period of time,” said Ted Fitzgerald, Acting Regional Director for Public Affairs. He did not elaborate.
Regarding the penalty for a case that involved two deaths, Fitzgerald wrote in an email:
“OSHA fines are assessed based on a number of factors, including the classification of the citations (serious, willful, repeat); the number of citations issued; and the size of the employer.
“In this case, four serious citations were issued, accounting for the total. If the same conditions were found during an inspection that involved no fatalities, the same fines would be proposed. There is no correlation between the size of the fine and whether or not a death or injury is involved.
“For example, if a worker dies on the job and OSHA finds no violations, then there would be no citations and therefore no fines. On the other hand, large penalties could be assessed in an inspection that involved no injuries or deaths if the inspection identified willful and repeated violations and/or a large number of serious violations.”