Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Confined Space Close Call

I figure being as this Blog is called Confined Space, I should occasionally write about confined spaces.

This story has a happy ending -- barely -- unlike most of the confined space incidents that make the papers.
Two workers were rescued from the bottom of a Cape Coral manhole Friday after apparently succumbing to toxic fumes, emergency crews reported.

Rodney Jones and Michael Radford of the Cape Coral company Reliable Divers were taken to Cape Coral Hospital. Radford was treated and released, a hospital nursing supervisor said.
The conditions were not unusual for this type of incident:
One of the men apparently passed out from a combination of low oxygen levels and hydrogen sulfide and methane fumes, said Tom Tomich, operations chief for the Cape fire department. Both gases are a byproduct of sewage and are found in sewage pipes.
NIOSH reports that more rescuers are killed in confined space incidents than original victims. We almost had an example here.
Tomich said the two men were inside the shaft apparently fixing a leak. One of the men passed out and fell part of the way down the 12- to 15-foot shaft. Tomich didn't know how far the man fell.

The other man went down to help him; he also began feeling the effects of the gas and fell.
Luckily, the fire department got there fast and ventilated the pipes to provide life-saving air to the workers before rescuing them. Many workers and rescuers aren't so lucky.

One more rather disquieting note:
Tomich said people often pass out after working in such tight quarters in sewage shafts. The sewer pipes weren’t hooked up yet, he said, but apparently there still were fumes.
People often pass out? Hello? Doesn't that tell you something about your program? One person passing out is a pretty frightening "close call" from which serious lessons should be learned. But often?

And one more thing. As the article says, oxygen deficiency, hydrogen sulfide and methane gas are "byproducts of sewage." But they are also byproducts of any decaying organic material -- plant material like weeds or grass, dead animals, whatever. So, as Tomic notes, there can still be fumes, even if the pipes aren't hooked up. Lesson: Assume any sewer line is a potentially deadly confined space. Always follow the OSHA standard: monitoring, ventilation, training, proper procedures and equipment, and safe rescue preparations.

More confined space information here.