All preventable workplace fatalities make me mad, but none make me madder than trench collapses and confined space fatalities. There is no reason for any of them to happen. The hazards of trenches and confined spaces are well known and there are good OSHA standards that would prevent these deaths if followed.

The first fatality I ever investigated at AFSCME was a confined space fatality in a Decatur, IL wastewater treatment plant. Wastewater treatment plants and sewer systems are notorious for confined space dangers because decaying sewage produces hydrogen sulfide, methane and oxygen shortages.  But that was 1983, before OSHA had a confined space standard and before Illinois had a public employee OSHA law.

But here we are 34 years later: 2 workers killed by gas at Miss. waste-water lift station.

Now I don’t know what happened here. Did one worker go down and pass out, and the other one go down to rescue him? It’s possible. Turns out the victims were father and son, 45-year-old Terry West and his 20-year-old son Gage West. This phenomenon is unfortunately not rare.  Until OSHA issued its general industry confined space standard in 1992, more rescuers died than original victims. And yet these cases continue to occur: One by one, 3 utility workers descended into a manhole. One by one, they died.

When a utility worker in Key Largo, Fla., noticed that a section of a paved street was not settling properly, he decided to remove a manhole cover and descend into the earth.

Moments later on Monday morning, the 15-foot-deep hole went silent. Sensing the man was trapped, a fellow utility worker climbed into the drainage hole to rescue him. When he, too, stopped responding, a third worker entered the same hole.

All three men died, overcome by poisonous fumes underground. They were identified as 34-year-old Elway Gray of Fort Lauderdale, 49-year-old Louis O’Keefe of Little Torch Key and 24-year-old Robert Wilson of Summerland Key.

OSHA’s general industry confined space standard was issued in 1992, but the agency didn’t get around to issuing a confined space standard for construction workers until 2015.  Confined spaces are work areas that (1) are large enough for an employee to enter, (2) have limited means of entry or exit, and (3) are not designed for continuous occupancy. They often have atmospheric or other hazards and can kill workers in minutes.

If a confined space is suspected to be hazardous, employers must designate it a “permit required confined space” and workers must be trained. The atmosphere must be tested and ventilated if found to be hazardous, and there must be special procedures for rescue.  The construction standard also has requirements that ensure that multiple employers share vital safety information and to continuously monitor hazards.

And it’s a good thing OSHA issued the construction standard in 2015. If it had been issued this year with Trump’s “one in/two out” Executive Order, OSHA might have had to remove protections for two other standards: maybe general industry workers in confined spaces don’t need protection any more. And we need to get rid of one more. Maybe the OSHA standard protecting workers from trench collapses?

OSHA’s Confined Space website can be found here.

3 thoughts on “Father and Son Suffocate in Confined Space. Why?”
  1. I’m very interested in this subject being an ex Marine engineer and currently a safety auditor and consultant. I’m sure yours aware that of the major causes of fatalities in confined spaces, is that of the sentry leaving the post and rushing into the space to attempt a rescue of a collapsed worker then consequently becoming a second victim of the same hazard. (Sometimes followed by a second and third would-be rescuer) To date the controls applied to this have been administrative in nature such as; training, permits to work, signage etc. However this issue continues to occur and result in approximately 1000 fatalities pa worldwide. We are developing an engineering solution to address this issue and I believe that it could be a game changer. A prototype production is currently underway.

    I would appreciate you opinion on whether my ideas are valid or not and I think the best thing (if you are agreeable) is to show you a powerpoint presentation on the product design using Skype. I would wish to record our skype conversation for confidentiality purposes and NDA agreement with you. I have received very positive feedback from practising safety managers here in NZ but it would be good to liaise with people like yourself involved with the wider industry.

  2. I am shocked that OSHA has “permit required ” and “non entry permit required” Confined spaces. To me it is a confined space or it is not, and that should be evaluated or a detailed hazard assessment by a certified safety professional.
    B.C Worksafebc regulations pt 9 9.9 Hazard assessment

    (1) A hazard assessment must be conducted for each

    (a) confined space, or each group of confined spaces which share similar characteristics, and

    (b) work activity, or group of work activities which present similar hazards, to be performed inside a confined space.

    (2) The hazard assessment required by subsection (1) must consider

    (a) the conditions which may exist prior to entry due to the confined space’s design, location or use, or which may develop during work activity inside the space, and

    (b) the potential for oxygen enrichment and deficiency, flammable gas, vapour or mist, combustible dust, other hazardous atmospheres, harmful substances requiring lockout and isolation, engulfment and entrapment, and other hazardous conditions.

    9.10 Procedures

    Written procedures specifying the means to eliminate or minimize all hazards likely to prevail must be developed, based on the hazard assessment required by section 9.9.

    9.11 Qualifications

    (1) The hazard assessment and written confined space entry procedures must be prepared

    (a) by a qualified person who has adequate training and experience in the recognition, evaluation and control of confined space hazards, and

    (b) in consultation with the person assigned overall responsibility for administration of the confined space entry program and with the joint committee or the worker health and safety representative, as applicable.

    (2) For the purposes of subsection (1)(a) qualifications which are acceptable as evidence of adequate training and experience include

    (a) certified industrial hygienist (CIH), registered occupational hygienist (ROH), certified safety professional (CSP), Canadian registered safety professional (CRSP) or professional engineer (P. Eng.), provided that the holders of these qualifications have experience in the recognition, evaluation and control of confined space hazards, or

    (b) Repealed. [B.C. Reg. 243/2006, effective January 1, 2007.]

    (c) other combination of education, training and experience acceptable to the Board.
    Another weakness in this topic is some jurisdictions have a “restricted space” designate, and that scares the heck out of me. The definition is clear and concise, the only problem is that the ones trying “NOT” to recognize as a confined spaces are not the ones going down to do the work and consider this topic a inconvenience and a “CO$T”.
    Being 2018 I am disturbed by the trend to this date as I have been heavily involved in the research, development and implementation of confined spaces programs and procedures since 1986, as this is when Canadian legislation started to recognize the problems. I also have been instructing comprehensive training programs since 1986 that were 40 hours right down to 8 hours, as my experience was I entered many aircraft fuel tanks for a commercial airline in western Canada.
    Its quite simple, “culture”, just in my experience. I don’t know all work group that enter these spaces but after my 25 plus years in wings of airplanes, I have trained many in other industries and I find it shocking the amount of people who have been doing or directing the work for years and are only “now” starting to get it.
    Also we have a bill in place since 2004 called bill C-45, talking to due diligence on the part of anyone directing work. Essentially what it says is do everything possible to safeguard your workers with education training and implementation. If found negligent, they face heavy fine$ and possible criminal record and jail time.
    now saying all that we still have lots of work to do, I believe this has to be a generation change to get the work culture to change.
    We need to get to new and young workers before they get influenced by “past practice” and “we have always done it this way with no problems” attitudes. It should be part of school curriculum before they enter the workforce.
    Just my thoughts. Safety has no boundaries and bias towards countries, as an injury to one is an injury to all. Its has to stop.

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