Gases in Confined Spaces Take Lives of Two Sewer Workers, Nearly Kill Third Man in New England

Oct. 3, 2011
Autopsies of two workers who collapsed and died while repairing a submersible pump in a pump storage tank at a Kennebunkport, Maine, hotel on Sept. 27 reveals they were exposed to high levels of hydrogen sulfide gas. It is suspected that the men did not test the atmosphere before they entered the tank.

The coroner ruled Winfield Studley and Richard Kemp, who were employed by Stevens Electric and Pump Services of Monmouth, Maine, died from “hydrogen sulfide toxicity in a confined space with terminal inhalation of sewage.” Hydrogen sulfide is given off by bacteria present in sewage and exposure quickly can lead to unconsciousness and death.

The storage tank where the men were working is 9 feet below ground and approximately 4 feet high by 6 feet long by 5 feet wide. Neither man was wearing a respirator when the bodies were found.

Studley and Kemp were working near an employee of Nest and Sons, who was pumping out the underground tank. He left with a load of sewage and when he returned, the men were gone, even though their truck still was in the parking lot. At that point, a hotel employee reporting them missing and when pumping was resumed in the tank, one of the bodies surfaced. The tank was searched and the second body was found.

“There were no witnesses. Nobody saw anything," Kennebunkport Police Chief Craig Sanford told the Portland Press Herald.

According to Karen Billups, assistant area director for OSHA, the tank should have been checked for oxygen deficiency, but it wasn't clear if such a check was performed. The agency is continuing its investigation.

Between them, Studley and Kemp had nearly 40 years of experience in this type of work. In a statement, company owner Tim Stevens said, “We are deeply saddened by the deaths of our friends and co-workers, Richard Kemp and Winfield Studley. At this point, we can’t be certain about what happened today. It’s a tragedy for two families, two communities and everyone who knew Dick and Win. Our thoughts and prayers are with their families and many friends. It's a terrible day for many people.”

Stevens’ company is cooperating with OSHA in its investigation.

In related news, Gus Futyma, an employee of Williamson Electric Motor Service, spent a night in intensive care at a hospital Sept. 29 after losing consciousness and getting trapped 14 feet underground in a manhole in West Bridgewater, Mass. Futyma was repairing a broken valve in a septic pump chamber and lost consciousness after less than 10 minutes. He was pulled out by emergency personnel, who had to cut a pipe to remove him.

Futyma was wearing a body harness tethered to a winch, but rescue crews still had difficulty pulling him out. It’s unclear if he had tested the environment before entering the confined space or if he was wearing a respirator when he collapsed. It is clear, though, that Fuyma’s boss knew of the potential dangers of the work area.

“You’re in a confined space. You have no idea what’s down there,” said Bob Tilden, the owner of the company where Futyma worked. “We never wanted [an incident like this] to happen but we train for it. We’re just praying for Gus, that he’s alright.”

OSHA is investigating.

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