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A worker and two wouldbe rescuers died when they were overcome by toxic fumes in a Florida manhole in January

OSHA: Safety Failures Led to Deaths of Three Workers Who Entered a Manhole

July 19, 2017
A utility contractor has been cited in the deaths of three workers who entered a confined space containing lethal levels of hydrogen sulfide and carbon monoxide.

On Jan. 16, Elway Gray, a 34-year-old pipe layer, entered a manhole in South Florida – a confined space – and quickly became unresponsive. Louis O’Keefe, a 49-year-old laborer, entered the manhole and attempted to rescue Gray. After O’Keefe also became unresponsive, Robert Wilson, a 24-year-old equipment operator, followed to help his fallen coworkers. All three men died.                                                

Post-incident atmospheric testing in the manhole revealed lethal levels of hydrogen sulfide and carbon monoxide. Two other employees and a volunteer firefighter also were exposed to the toxic gases in the manhole during rescue attempts but survived. 

“The hazards of working in manholes are well established, but there are ways to make it safe,” said Condell Eastmond, the OSHA area director in Fort Lauderdale. “Three employees needlessly lost their lives and others were injured due to their employer’s failure to follow safe work practices.”

OSHA has cited a South Florida utility company and related contracting company after the agency’s investigation into the deaths of the workers. OSHA investigators cited Douglas N. Higgins Inc. and its related contracting company, McKenna Contracting LLC, with 10 serious violations totaling $119,507, in penalties. The incident-related serious violations are for failing to purge or ventilate the confined space before entry, exposing the workers to an asphyxiation hazard and not providing necessary rescue and emergency equipment for employees who were overcome inside a permit-required confined space.

In addition, OSHA issued serious citations to Higgins and McKenna Contracting for failing to:

Develop and implement a written hazard communication program for a worksite in which employees were exposed to dangerous chemicals and gases.

Use a calibrated, direct-reading device to test for toxic gases, creating an asphyxiation hazard.

Create and document the confined space entry permit.

Provide training to employees in the safe performance of their assigned duties in permit-required confined spaces.

Provide a guardrail around the manhole opening, thereby exposing employees to a fall hazard.

Founded in Ann Arbor, Michigan, D.N. Higgins expanded in 1989 with the opening of its Naples office. The company specializes in underground installations of mechanical systems, pump stations, storm water drainage systems and municipal infrastructure. McKenna Contracting LLC was formed in 2012 and is a related company that provides contract administration and labor to Higgins’ jobsites in Florida.

The companies have 15 business days from receipt of the citations and proposed penalties to contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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