Incident summary: Four workers perished because their employer failed to identify a steel compartment as a permit-required confined space.
The damage: A crew member was assigned to inspect the inside of an enclosed steel structure that was 18 feet wide by 8 feet long. The only way to access the compartment was through a manhole that measured 18 inches by 14 inches.
To ventilate the space, the worker left the manhole open for about an hour before he climbed down the fixed metal ladder into the compartment.
As soon as the employee reached the bottom of the ladder, he lost consciousness.
When the staffer didn’t show up for his break, his colleagues began looking for him. One by one, coworkers climbed down the ladder into the steel structure and fell unconscious.
Another man began to descend the ladder, but then thought better of it. Instead, he called 9-1-1.
Emergency responders arrived a short time later. One of them put on a self-contained breathing apparatus, descended into the space and found the four lifeless bodies. Eventually, the dead men were taken out of the space.
Findings: The atmosphere inside the confined space lacked oxygen, probably due to a chemical reaction caused by the corrosion of the steel walls. Because the employer hadn’t identified the compartment as a permit-required confined space, none of the staffers who went into the danger zone followed safe work practices, which would’ve included testing the atmosphere inside the space, assigning someone to act as an attendant and setting up an emergency retrieval system.
(From the May 10, 2021, issue of Safety Alert for Supervisors. To start your no-obligation trial subscription to the publication right now, please click here.)