Coating Firm, GC Cited in Manhole Death


A St. Louis-area industrial painting contractor and general contractor share responsibility in the suffocation of an employee who perished in a pipe 18 feet underground a sewer plant last summer, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has ruled.

OSHA has issued 14 willful, serious and other violations and $224,000 in penalties against Coatings Unlimited Inc., of Bridgeton, MO, in the August 2012 death of employee Steve Webb, 53. The agency also announced two serious citations and $5,600 in fines against general contractor KCI Construction Co., of St. Louis.

Webb perished Aug. 28 inside an 18-foot-deep vault manhole while building the Boschertown sanitary sewer lift station.

Authorities said Webb had worked in several confined spaces that day and had collapsed amid exposure to a variety of toxic vapors, including the solvent methyl ethyl ketone (MEK). The medical examiner listed the cause of death as acute MEK toxicity.

Calls to both companies for comment were not immediately returned Friday (March 1).

Acute MEK Toxicity

"Employers have a responsibility to take all necessary steps to eliminate hazards from the workplace and to ensure workers are given the proper training to conduct required tasks," Charles Adkins, OSHA's regional administrator in Kansas City, MO, said in a news release.

"Workers should be provided with the appropriate personal protective equipment to limit exposure to hazardous chemicals. It is tragic that one employee lost his life during the construction project."

Webb worked in six different confined spaces using methyl ethyl ketone (MEK) and an epoxy that contained xylene, methyl isobutyl ketone, and ethyl benzene before being overcome, OSHA said.

Coatings Unlimited has been placed in OSHA's Severe Violator Enforcement Program, which mandates targeted follow-up inspections of what OSHA calls "recalcitrant" employers.

Confined-Space Violations

The citations against Coatings Unlimited comprise three willful, 10 serious, and one other-than-serious.

Willful violations—OSHA's highest level of infraction—allege failure to:

  • Implement safety precautions before assigning work in a confined space;
  • Test atmospheric conditions of the confined space before and after entry; and
  • Control exposure to MEK.

OSHA said Coatings Unlimited had failed to protect Webb as he worked in vault manholes and a dry well.

Specifically, according to the willful violations, the company failed to:

  • Complete a confined-space permit;
  • Assign an attendant to the worksite to be stationed immediately outside the confined space during all periods of entry;
  • Provide and require the use of appropriate harness and retrieval equipment;
  • Provide air sampling equipment; and
  • Provide and require the use of ventilation equipment.

OSHA also charged that the employer failed to conduct an assessment to determine the potential for a hazardous atmosphere or treat the atmosphere as an Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health (IDLH) environment.

The employer failed to conduct an assessment in accordance with its own written respirator program despite having air sampling equipment, according to OSHA.

Coatings Unlimited Coatings Unlimited
Coatings Unlimited

Founded in 1954, Coatings Unlimited of Bridgeton, MO, provides a variety of coating and lining services. The contractor is facing 14 federal violations and $224,000 in fines related to the death of an employee.

Webb was exposed to atmospheric hazards when Coatings Unlimited failed to test or estimate solvent levels and failed to test for sewer gases in the event of a valve leak, leakage from the wet well into the dry well, or migration of soil gases from the lagoon system, according to OSHA.

Additionally, Webb was exposed to 2-butanone above the eight-hour time weighted average permissible exposure limit of 200 parts per million. He was exposed to about 1,000 ppm averaged over an eight-hour time period. The company failed to conduct air monitoring, OSHA said.

Engineering controls were not implemented to control atmospheric concentrations of MEK and other solvents. OSHA said Coatings Unlimited failed to use engineering controls in accordance with its written safety and health programs.

Serious Respiratory Violations

Five of the 10 serious violations accuse Coatings Unlimited of violating OSHA's respiratory standards when Webb entered a sanitary sewer dry well and vault manholes to perform solvent cleaning and painting.

Serious violations allege that Coatings Unlimited did not: 

  • Include worksite specific procedures when an atmospheric hazard was introduced and/or existed in a confined space;
  • Designate a program administrator who was qualified by appropriate training or experience to administer or oversee the respiratory protection program;
  • Provide medical evaluation to determine Webb's ability to use a respirator before he was fit tested or required to use the respirator;
  • Provide comprehensive, understandable respirator training, which did not occur annually and/or more often if necessary; and
  • Establish a record of of the qualitative and quantitative fit tests administered to an employee.

The remaining serious violations allege that the company did not:

  • Include adequate hazard communication training to employees;
  • Instruct employees on the hazards involved, the necessary precautions to be taken, and the use of protective and emergency equipment required;
  • Ensure that appropriate chemical resistant gloves were provided to a worker who used methyl ethyl ketone and rags to wipe clean piping/valve surfaces before painting;
  • Ensure that an employee had a fire extinguisher readily available at all times when working with flammable products; and
  • Provide adequate portable extension ladders.

The other-than-serious violation was for allegedly failing to label storage tanks with signage to identify chemical hazards.

Serious citation penalites totaled $56,000. The willful citation carries a $168,000 fine. There was no fine levied for the other-than-serious citation.

KCI Violations

KCI Construction received two serious citations and a total fine of $5,600.

The company was the project's general contractor.

According to OSHA, KCI failed to perform regular inspections, leading to unsafe conditions that included use of unsafe ladder rungs, misuse of a step ladder, lack of air monitoring before and during entry in a confined space, lack of attendant, lack of mechanical ventilation, lack of retrieval equipment, and lack of respiratory protection.

The other serious violation said that the company did not instruct the subcontractor's employee in recognizing and avoiding unsafe conditions.


Tagged categories: Accidents; Confined space; Enforcement; Fatalities; General contractors; Health & Safety; Health and safety; Methyl acetate; OSHA; Painting Contractors; Respiratory Protection Standard

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