Two Die in Confined Space Incident at California Natural FoodsCompany

Investigators say argon gas, lurking at the bottom of a tank, displaced oxygen, causing asphyxiation.

Who says natural foods are good for you? Certainly not the employees at Spectrum Naturals, a natural foods company in Petaluma, Calif., who lost two co-workers in a freak confined-space accident.

Javier Del Rio was cleaning an empty tank used to store flaxseed oil when he reportedly lost consciousness. A co-worker, Francisco Estrella, jumped in to rescue him and was asphyxiated as well.

According to investigators on the scene, argon gas was pumped into the tank to drive out oxygen and prevent the flaxseed oil from spoiling. Once the tank was emptied of oil, air was forced into the tanks and vents were opened to remove the argon gas. Apparently, some of the argon gas, which is heavier than oxygen, lurked at the bottom of the tank, where it displaced the oxygen needed by Del Rio and Estrella to breathe.

Investigators from Cal-OSHA are on site and, according to Spectrum CEO Jethren Phillips, are satisfied that the proper protocols for using the gas were in place at the time of the accident. The Cal-OSHA investigation will continue until a cause is determined. Phillips said the men had cleaned the tanks many times on a routine basis without incident.

"We are more anxious than anyone to find out what happened," Phillips said. "This is a very closely-knit family, and two very valuable associates were lost. We are concerned for their families, and we want to prevent this from happening again."

Petaluma Fire Marshal Michael Ginn said his crew was on the scene within minutes of the call coming in, but it took about 20 minutes for them to retrieve Del Rio and Estrella from the confined space. A firefighter, wearing a self-contained breathing apparatus, had to be lowered into the tank with a rescue harness to remove the two men, who were pronounced dead at a local hospital.

by Sandy Smith ([email protected])

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