Safety and OSHA News

3 die in confined space; OSHA fines employer $119K

This tragic story provides an important reminder to workers about confined spaces: If they don’t have the proper equipment and training to perform a rescue, they’re risking their own lives by going in to help a co-worker. 

OSHA has cited Douglas N. Higgins Inc. and its related contracting company, McKenna Contracting LLC, with 10 serious violations totaling $119,507 in penalties in connection with the deaths of three workers in a manhole in Key Largo, FL, on Jan. 16, 2017.

Elway Gray, 34, entered the manhole (a confined space) and quickly lost consciousness. Louis O’Keefe, 49, entered the manhole and attempted to rescue Gray. After O’Keefe also became unresponsive, Robert Wilson, 24, also went into the confined space to attempt a rescue. All three men died.

Testing showed lethal levels of hydrogen sulfide and carbon monoxide in the manhole. Two other employees and a volunteer firefighter were also exposed to the toxic gases but survived.

OSHA cited Higgins and McKenna for failing to:

  • Purge or ventilate the confined space before entry
  • Prevent worker exposure to an asphyxiation hazard
  • Provide necessary rescue and emergency equipment for employees that were overcome inside a permit-required confined space.
  • Develop and implement a written hazard communication program for a worksite where 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, and
  • Provide a guardrail around the manhole opening, exposing employees to a fall hazard.

Higgins specializes in underground installations of mechanical systems, pump stations, storm water drainage systems and municipal infrastructure. McKenna provides contract administration and labor to Higgins’ jobsites in Florida.

The companies have 15 business days from receipt of the citations to pay the fines, enter talks with OSHA, or appeal to the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health says more than 60% of confined space fatalities occur among would-be rescuers.

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