On January 16, 2017, a utility worker in Key Largo descended into a manhole. He was an employee of a private contractor that had been called to the neighborhood after residents complained of sewer backup. A street section wasn’t settling properly and he wanted to see how things looked below ground.
Seconds after his descent in the 15-foot hole that was barely wide enough for an adult to fit in, he stopped responding to his colleagues. A fellow worker went down the hole to rescue him but he too fell silent shortly after. A third worker climbed into the hole and suffered a similar fate. All three men died after inhaling poisonous gases. A firefighter called to the scene attempted a rescue of the 3 men but lost consciousness in seconds and had to be airlifted to a hospital in critical condition.
Later tests would show that the manhole was filled with methane and hydrogen sulfide gas that had accumulated following years of rotting vegetation. An area resident had noticed a smell of rotten eggs (characteristic of hydrogen sulfide) for months.
Neither the 3 workers nor the fireman wore masks or carried air packs, something that would probably have prevented their death or illness. The fireman was rescued by a colleague who managed to wear his air tank. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has launched an investigation into the worker’s deaths.
Unintended Consequence of Compliance
One unintended consequence of good health and safety regulations is that they can become so effective as to cause complacency. When employers rigorously enforce workplace safety rules and regulations, the decline in accidents can create an illusion of an absence of perils.
The Key Largo tragedy is a classic example. Incidents of workers dying of gas poisoning in manholes are extremely rare and this may see a laxity in adherence to safety regulations. A number of confined space safety rules were violated including a lack of protective gear and the absence of air testing prior descent.
Gas poisoning is serious and even when it does not lead to death, it may cause brain damage and other long term health complications. Pregnant workers may experience a stillbirth or the newborn child may have congenital defects.
Employers are responsible for ensuring the workplace in which their employees operate is safe. If you are in a career where there is a risk of gas poisoning, it is up to the employer to ensure they adhere to all appropriate rules and regulations. Employees should not only be trained in how to enter confined spaces but must also be equipped with the requisite gear that would protect them from contaminated air.
Sternberg | Forsythe, P.A. Florida Workers’ Compensation Attorney
When you fall seriously ill or a loved one is killed due to gas poisoning while at their workstation, it is time to speak to a Florida workers’ compensation attorney. You may qualify for compensation for the medical costs and income loss that result from the incident. Our team of lawyers at Sternberg | Forsythe, P.A. will provide robust legal advice and work tirelessly for the settlement that’s due to you.