A California facility has been fined $166,890 for what authorities called the “completely preventable” deaths of two brothers who perished in a storm drain from toxic gas vapors.
The victims’ mother calls the fine “a mockery.”
Armando and Eladio Ramirez, ages 16 and 22, were undocumented workers at Community Recycling and Resource Recovery in Lamont, CA, when they were sent to clean out a blocked underground storm drain system on Oct. 12, 2011.
Kern County Fire Department
|Armando and Eladio Ramirez were about seven feet down in the shaft below this opening when they were overcome by poison gas. One perished at the scene; the other died a month later.|
The eight-foot-deep cement drainage tunnel was filled with hydrogen sulfide gas, a poison that accumulates in sewers, drilling and refinery operations, and other confined spaces where organic materials break down. Community Recycling composts food waste.
Fatal Rescue Attempt
Armando died in the shaft. Eladio was overcome and suffered irreversible brain damage when he went in to rescue his brother—an all-too-common mistake in confined-space accidents, authorities say. Eladio died Nov. 14 at an area hospital after he was taken off life support.
A third man was also injured in trying to rescue Eladio but did not go into the tunnel. He was treated at the hospital and released.
Although known for its “rotten egg” smell, hydrogen sulfide can be odorless at high concentrations and at continuous, low-level exposures. Victims can instantaneously lose the ability to smell the gas and quickly lose consciousness.
California’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal/OSHA) has issued 16 citations and fined Community Recycling a total of $166,890 in the case. All of the citations relate to confined-space violations, including failure to properly train workers, test for atmospheric hazards, or have rescue procedures in place.
Twelve citations were issued for serious (life-threatening) violations; four are classified as “other than serious.” The company is appealing the citations.
A&B Harvesting, a farm labor contractor that employed Eladio Ramirez, was issued one citation under OSHA’s general accident-prevention clause.
After the incident, Cal/OSHA declared the drainage system an imminent hazard due to high levels of hydrogen sulfide gas from the food decomposition. The agency issued an order barring workers from the entire system and soon expanded the order to prevent any activity within six feet of the system’s openings.
The agency lifted the restrictions Jan. 6 after Community Recycling implemented an approved Confined Space Entry Program.
Kern County Fire Department
|Emergency crews respond to Community Recycling, where two brothers were asphyxiated by toxic gas.|
The Ramirez brothers were among seven workers who suffered confined-space deaths on the job in California last year—a toll that spurred the state to issue a Confined Space Alert to employers. A companion Confined Space Emphasis Program includes standards, tools and resources for employers, as well as stepped-up enforcement.
“These young workers’ deaths were completely preventable,” said Cal/OSHA Chief Ellen Widess.
“Hydrogen sulfide gas is a fatal and common by-product of the composting process. Yet Community Recycling and Recovery failed to have proper procedures in place. … These could have saved both workers who were not trained or provided adequate protection.”
Widess said the accident “sharply underscores the need for greater awareness by all employers and workers of the dangers associated with working in confined space and the necessary safety measures to protect workers when and if they work in these spaces.”
Department of Industrial Relations director Christine Baker called the incident “a tragic example of what can go wrong when employers do not have proper safety procedures in place.”
The victims’ family calls the state’s actions insufficient. Family members said the brothers had been given only thin painter’s masks to protect them from fumes.
“That fine is a mockery,” their mother, Faustina Ramirez, told Bakersfieldnow.com.
|Faustina Ramirez keeps a memorial shrine to her two sons in her home in Arvin, CA.|
Ramirez has created a shrine to her sons in her home. “I look at them every day,” she said.
The county has been trying to shut down Community Recycling, and supervisors voted in November to revoke conditional use permit. Still, the process grinds on.
Meanwhile, the Cal/OSHA investigation remains open, and those findings will be turned over to local prosecutors to review for possible criminal charges, reports said.
State labor authorities are also investigating the case. Both brothers were undocumented workers, and one was a minor.
“I want justice,” Ramirez told bakersfieldnow.com. “Losing two sons is not an easy thing.”