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Safety First and Last: Anatomy of a Tragedy

Twitter, news outlets and newspaper headlines were resoundingly similar in wake of the tragedy that befell four individuals in Key Largo, Fla., on Jan. 16. They read, “One critically injured and three construction workers dead after drainage work accident”; “Three Florida construction workers killed on the job”; “Three dead while working in a trench in Key Largo Monday morning.” This has got to stop. These were three senseless, preventable tragedies. Three men leaving families and loved ones behind, performing what, on the surface, seemed to be a routine task.


February 14, 2017
By Jeff Thorne

Topics

Twenty-four-year-old Robert Wilson, 49-year-old Louis O’Keefe and 34-year-old Elway Gray had been sent out to respond to reports of a sewage backup in the neighbourhood. They noticed a dip in the newly paved road and removed a nearby manhole cover to investigate what may be causing the dip. The first man went down, then there was no response. Concerned for their co-workers wellbeing – anxious, with adrenaline pumping and heart pounding – another worker entered the 15-foot-deep hole, and then another. There was silence.

All three men had succumbed to the deadly levels of hydrogen sulphide and methane that were present in the confined space. Without following proper confined-space entry protocols, none of them ever had a chance. The reported cause of the atmospheric hazard was a year-long build-up of rotten vegetation at the bottom of a drainage ditch.

Rescue services arrived and, based on the small size of the manhole opening, the volunteer firefighter, Leonardo Moreno, made a decision to enter the space without an air supply. This costly decision resulted in Moreno immediately losing consciousness. He was rescued by another firefighter who was equipped with the proper breathing apparatus and Moreno was airlifted to a nearby hospital where he remains in critical condition. So here we have three fatalities, a volunteer firefighter in critical condition and Monroe county detectives and U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) inspectors investigating this incident.

These three workers worked for an organization that, according to the Miami Herald “had been previously been cited by OSHA for not implementing a confined space program; lack of atmospheric testing; not posting an entry permit; lack of a proper rescue plan; and not having rescue services or equipment available on site.”

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Confined spaces can be some of the most dangerous workspaces found in our jobs. In Canada, the definition of a confined space varies slightly from province to province but typically has two main components: a space that is not designed or intended for human occupancy and has an atmospheric hazard – for instance, oxygen deficiency or enrichment, flammable or explosive, toxic – that can result in adverse or harmful effects to the worker.

When a confined space is present, legislation across Canada is fairly clear as to the obligations placed upon the employer. Once a confined space has been identified, employers must ensure the hazards of the space are assessed and that the assessment takes into account any hazards that may be created based on the work performed in or around the space.

Based on the hazard assessment, a written entry plan to control identified hazards must be developed. The plan should take into account some of the key elements to a successful entry: duties of workers, ventilation and purging, atmospheric testing, methods of communication, on-site rescue procedures, personal protective equipment and procedures for working in the presence of flammable or explosive materials.

The elements of the plan should be incorporated into an entry permit that has been reviewed by the entrants and attendants and signed off by a competent supervisor or someone that is in control of the entry. Everyone needs to be trained on the contents of the plan to ensure the entry will be a safe one.

What occurred in Key Largo, Fla., in January was tragic, but believe me when I tell you it was preventable. Conducting atmospheric testing would have identified the oxygen-deficient environment and these workers, with the proper knowledge and training, would not have entered this space. These workers and their families deserved more.