Underage Worker Dies from Toxic Gas Exposure at California Recycling Center

One worker died and two other workers at the Community Recycling and Resource Co. near Lamont, Calif., had to be taken to the hospital when they were exposed to toxic fumes on Oct. 12 while working in and around a drainage tunnel. Cal-OSHA is investigating not only the incident, but also the fact that the worker who died was a 16-year-old named Armando Ramirez.

Eyewitnesses said that Ramirez entered a cement drainage tunnel and was overcome by the fumes. A worker for a contractor on the site, A&B Harvesting, entered the hole to rescue Ramirez and also was overcome. He is listed in critical condition.

Firefighters, wearing appropriate personal protective equipment, rescued the two men, who were 6-8 feet down the shaft. A third man also was transported to the hospital where he was treated and released. The man, an employee of Community Recycling, did not enter the hole but showed symptoms related to exposure to the fumes.

"Our preliminary readings off our field instruments are saying hydrogen sulfide and carbon monoxide," said Kern County Environmental Health spokesman Brian Pitts. "This is unfortunately almost a classic scenario where somebody may not recognize the dangers of going down into a [confined space] and a well-intentioned rescuer coming to their aid – not recognizing the dangers – and also going down."

Pitts said the levels of carbon monoxide in the tunnel were approximately 200 ppm, "about double what's immediately dangerous to life and health."

Pitts said his agency has had some issues with the facility in the past. Community Recycling takes in green waste, including food scraps, and turns it into compost. Environmental Health had concerns about the way material was being composted, but Pitts said the facility has been in compliance in recent years.

Cal/OSHA spokeswoman Patricia Ortiz said Cal/OSHA officials originally identified the 16-year-old worker as being 30 years old, but later realized he may have had a false ID. Cal/OSHA has made a referral to the Labor Commissioner’s Office about the underage worker. The U.S. Department of Labor also has launched an investigation related to the 16-year-old working at the site.

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