Earlier this year, a utility worker in Key Largo removed a manhole cover and descended into a 15-foot drainage hole to perform maintenance work. As he neared the bottom, he was overcome by gas and passed out. A second worker entered the hole behind him in a rescue attempt, and likewise collapsed. Before the ordeal was over, a third worker and a firefighter would succumb to the gas in failed rescue attempts. All three workers died, and the firefighter, though he lived, was flown from the scene by Medevac in critical condition.
Unfortunately, stories like this happen to workers around the country on a regular basis, and not just in drain holes. Ductwork, elevator shafts, crawl spaces, and many other confined spaces present unique hazards that can lead to preventable deaths. According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL), Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, on average about 92 people die in confined spaces each year. Sadly, many of those deaths occur during failed rescue attempts. Some estimate that about 60% of rescue attempts in confined spaces lead to additional deaths.
According to OSHA’s definition, a confined space is any area that is accessible to workers but not designed for human occupancy. Examples include utility maintenance holes, ductwork, crawl spaces, pits, elevator shafts, systems maintenance spaces, vaults, pipes and storage tanks. These areas represent unique dangers to workers that fall into two primary categories: Atmospheric and physical.
The Key Largo tragedy happened due to a buildup of hydrogen sulfide gas in the confined space of the drainage hole. Hydrogen sulfide gas has a distinctive rotten egg odor. It is colorless and heavier than air. Hydrogen sulfide gas is commonly found in sewage systems, and may go undetected despite its smell due to olfactory fatigue.
Air in confined spaces can appear perfectly safe and yet be quite deadly. The danger can take a number of forms:
Unfortunately, when atmospheric conditions cause harm, they often take more than one victim. Witnesses often feel moved to attempt a rescue. Rescue attempts without adequate protective breathing apparatus and proper rescue equipment are rarely successful in these situations, and often lead to additional victims.
Even when the air is quite safe, confined spaces present unique dangers to workers.
Facility owners and managers must understand the dangers of confined spaces in order to keep their workers safe. Both routine maintenance and construction or renovation present opportunities for workers to enter confined spaces. It may be ductwork above a ceiling, an elevator shaft, or pipelines below the floor. Wherever the confined spaces are in your building, you owe it to your people to understand them and to insist on safe work practices. Read more about confined spaces here, and contact GLE for a complete confined spaces assessment and safety plan for your facility.