Anatomy of a Tragedy: The Key Largo, Florida Incident

Anatomy of a Tragedy: The Key Largo, Florida Incident

Twitter, news outlets, and newspaper headlines, were resoundingly similar in wake of the tragedy that befell 4 individuals in Key Largo Florida on January 16th 2017.

They read “1 critically injured and 3 construction workers dead after drainage work accident”, “Three Florida construction workers killed on the job”, “Three dead while working in a trench in Key Largo Monday morning”. This has got to stop. These were three senseless, preventable tragedies. Three men leaving families and loved ones behind, performing on the surface, what seemed to be a routine task.

24-year-old Robert Wilson, 49-year-old Louis O’Keefe, and 34-year-old Elway Gray had been sent out to respond to reports of a sewage backup in the neighborhood. They noticed a dip in the newly paved road and removed a nearby manhole cover to investigate what may be causing the dip. The first man went down, there was no response. Concerned for their co-workers well-being, anxious, adrenaline pumping, heart pounding, another worker entered the 15 foot deep hole, and then another. There was silence.

All three men had succumbed to the deadly levels of hydrogen sulphide and methane that were present in the confined space. Without following proper confined space entry-protocols, none of them ever had a chance. The reported cause of the atmospheric hazard was a year long build-up of rotten vegetation at the bottom of a drainage ditch.

There were complaints from people in the neighbourhood regarding a continuous smell of rotten eggs or a sulfur type smell, for close to a year. A tell tale sign of the presence of methane or hydrogen sulphide.

Rescue services arrived, and based on the small size of the manhole opening, the volunteer firefighter, Leonardo Moreno, made a decision to enter the space without an air supply. This costly decision resulted in Moreno immediately losing consciousness. He was rescued by another firefighter who was equipped with the proper breathing apparatus and Moreno was airlifted to a nearby hospital where he remains in critical condition.

So here we have three fatalities, a volunteer fire fighter in critical condition, Monroe county detectives, and U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) inspectors investigating this incident.

These three workers worked for an organization that, as stated by the Miami Herald “had been previously cited BY OSHA for not implementing a confined space program, lack of atmospheric testing, not posting an entry permit, lack of a proper rescue plan, and not having rescue services or equipment available on site.”

Confined spaces can be some of the most dangerous workspaces found in our workplaces. In Canada, the definition of a confined space varies slightly from province to province but typically has two main components:

A space that is not designed or intended for human occupancy, AND a space that has an atmospheric hazard (oxygen deficiency or enrichment, flammable or explosive, toxic) based on the construction, work performed, or contents in the space that can result in adverse or harmful effects to the worker.

When a confined space is present, legislation across Canada is fairly clear as to the obligations placed upon the employer. Once a confined space has been identified, employers must ensure the hazards of the space are assessed and that the assessment takes into place any hazards that may be created based on the work performed in or around the space.

Based on the hazard assessment, a written entry plan to control identified hazards must be developed. The plan should take into account some of the key elements to a successful entry; duties of workers, ventilation and purging, atmospheric testing, methods of communication, on-site rescue procedures, personal protective equipment, and procedures for working in the presence of flammable or explosive materials.

The elements of the plan should be incorporated into an entry permit that has been reviewed by entrants, attendants, and signed off by a competent supervisor or someone that is in control of the entry. Everyone needs to be trained on the contents of the plan to ensure the entry will be a safe one.

What occurred in Key Largo Florida in January was tragic, believe me when I tell you this, it was preventable. Conducting atmospheric testing would have identified the oxygen deficient environment, and these workers, with the proper knowledge and training, would not have entered this space.

These workers and their families deserved more.

As seen in our March Be Safe Newsletter

Written by Jeff Thorne | Manager of Training and Consulting


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