A Texas contractor failed to test atmospheric conditions, provide sufficient ventilation, or have rescue equipment ready before sending a worker into a sewer line, where he then died, federal safety authorities say.
U.S. Chemical Safety Board
|Hydrogen sulfide is common in sewer lines and can kill in a few breaths. A 2002 hydrogen sulfide leak from a sewer manway in Alabama killed two contractors and injured seven co-workers and one bystander.|
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cited Granbury Contracting and Utilities Inc., of Tolar, TX, for two willful and two serious safety and health violations in the death of Eliseo Ramirez Rodriguez. OSHA is proposing $118,580 in fines in the case.
Rodriguez suffocated June 28 at a city Sanitary Lift Station in Gordon, TX, while conducting an inspection of a sewer line.
Authorities said Rodriguez fell back into the line while trying to climb a ladder to get out. That prompted another worker, Raphael Morales, to enter the line and try to rescue him, authorities said.
Morales was then overcome by the gas and also fell from the ladder, authorities said. A third employee, who was not identified, then was able to pull Morales out. The third worker was not injured, but Morales was hospitalized for the exposure.
Willful, Serious Violations
The willful violations—OSHA’s highest level of infraction—allege failure to test for atmospheric conditions, failure to provide adequate ventilation, and failure to provide emergency retrieval equipment before allowing Rodriguez to enter the hazardous atmosphere in a confined space, where employees risked exposure to hydrogen sulfide, methane or drowning.
A willful violation assumes “intentional knowing or voluntary disregard for the law's requirements” or “plain indifference to worker safety and health.”
The serious violations allege failure to:
• Provide or require the use of respirators; and
• Determine the potential for a hazardous atmosphere where oxygen deficiency, methane and/or hydrogen sulfide were present or likely to be present.
Serious violations reflect “substantial probability” of death or serious physical harm from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known.
"The company failed to ensure that proper confined space entry procedures were followed," said Jack Rector, OSHA's area director in Fort Worth. "If it had followed OSHA's safety standards, it is possible that this tragic incident could have been prevented."
Granbury, which employs about 30 people at the Gordon location, was cited by OSHA in 2008 for one serious violation of fire prevention standards and in 2007 for two serious excavation and respiratory violations. The company did not respond Thursday to a request for comment.
Granbury has 15 business days from receipt of its citations to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA, or contest the citations.
Other Manhole Deaths
The Granbury incident came just two weeks after a nearly identical incident claimed the lives of two workers in North Carolina.
There, one worker perished while trying to rescue another who had suffocated while laying water lines. The victims were employees of Triangle Grading and Paving, a Burlington NC-based utility contractor that has been cited dozens of times for federal health and safety violations. In 1997, a company employee burned to death on a job.
OSHA has not yet completed its investigation in the North Carolina case.
And in September, two workers were overcome by toxic gases while working in a sewage pump tank in Kennebunkport, ME.
In that case, OSHA issued four serious citations and proposed $16,800 in fines against the men’s employer, Stevens Electric & Pump Service, of Monmouth, ME.
Toxic Exposure Regulations
Hydrogen sulfide (H2S) is a colorless, flammable, poisonous gas commonly found in sewer systems. It is 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 kill a person’s ability to smell the gas at all and cause chemical asphyxiation with a few breaths, 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. Emergency responders to areas that may contain hydrogen sulfide require special training and respiratory protection.