Safety and OSHA News

Poisonous air in confined space claims 3 lives

What started with one unconscious worker in an underground hole turned into three deaths, and a rescuer in critical condition. The lesson: Don’t try to perform a rescue if you’re not properly equipped. 

How did this incident in the Florida Keys happen? The local sheriff’s department says a utility worker removed a manhole cover in a street and descended into a 15-foot hole. Moments later, there was no sound from the hole. Believing his co-worker was in danger, a second utility worker entered the hole. When the second worker didn’t respond, a third went into the hole.

Now, all three men, employees of roadwork contractor Douglas N. Higgins, are dead. The victims were 24, 34 and 49.

None of the men had masks or air packs which could have saved them.

A Key Largo firefighter also entered the hole without a mask or air pack because the entry was too narrow for him to go in with the proper equipment. He was unconscious within seconds also. When he was pulled out by a rescuer who was able to squeeze into the hole with the proper equipment, the firefighter wasn’t breathing and had to be revived using CPR. He’s hospitalized in critical condition.

Tests show the hole was filled with hydrogen sulfide and methane, created from years of rotted vegetation.

Three sheriff’s deputies who were on the scene were also taken to area hospitals for dizziness.

OSHA is investigating.

The Miami Herald reports that in April 2002, OSHA issued citations to Higgins regarding another project in Florida with a final fine of $1,875. The violations included:

  • atmospheric testing wasn’t performed
  • a confined space entry program wasn’t implemented
  • confined space entry permits weren’t implemented by a qualified person
  • a rescue plan wasn’t implemented
  • rescue services weren’t available in a timely manner, and
  • rescue equipment wasn’t available at the site.

This tragedy shows why this message should be repeated time and again to workers: Don’t be a hero. If you don’t have proper rescue equipment to help a co-worker in trouble, wait for properly equipped rescuers to arrive, or you could become a victim yourself.

Print Friendly

Subscribe Today

Get the latest and greatest safety news and insights delivered to your inbox.


  1. With sympathy and condolences to the friends and families of the victims I’ve got to say, I can’t believe this kind of stuff can happen in America in 2017. No Confined Space Program, no atmospheric testing, no breathing air, attempted rescues with no breathing air, even a firefighter who I assume would have been trained on confined space rescue (I was as a volunteer, and also when I attended fire academy and received my certification). This should never have happened.

Speak Your Mind