Posted with permission from Confined Space, a newsletter of workplace safety and labor issues.

I wrote a few weeks ago about the death of three workers in a confined space incident where the initial worker passed out and two would-be rescuers died attempting to rescue the original victim. Last week, OSHA cited Douglas N. Higgins, Inc. and its related contracting company, McKenna Contracting with 10 “serious” violations totaling $119,507 in penalties for the deaths of three workers, Robert Wilson, 24, Elway Gray, 34, and Louis O’Keefe, 49, who died in similar circumstances last  January 2017 while working in a Key Largo manhole from lethal levels of hydrogen sulfide and carbon monoxide.

OSHA cited the company for violations of its Confined Spaces standard for construction which requires employers to test the air in a confined space, identify and evaluate the hazards, ventilating the space, providing safety equipment for entry and exit and procedures for summoning rescue and emergency services. The confined space construction standard was issued by OSHA just last year. McKenna also received several citation for failing to train workers about the chemical hazards they encountered.

OSHA issued a press release covering this citation (a rare occurrence in this administration.) “The hazards of working in manholes are well established, but there are ways to make it safe,” said Condell Eastmond, the OSHA area director in Fort Lauderdale. “Three employees needlessly lost their lives and others were injured due to their employer’s failure to follow safe work practices.”

I have no additional knowledge of the legal issues involved in this case, but my first question would be why there are no willful citation. According to OSHA, Higgins  “specializes in underground installations of mechanical systems, pump stations, storm water drainage systems and municipal infrastructure.”  How can a company that specializes in work in areas where confined spaces are common can profess to have no knowledge of the hazards of confined spaces?  And the problem with not issuing a willful violation is that, under OSHA’s law, the criminal charges cannot be pursued against the company.

Close Calls

The death toll from the Key Largo tragedy almost reached four. Firefighter Leonardo Moreno was also overcome by the fumes while trying to rescue the original victims, but survived after being placed in an induced coma for several days.

Meanwhile, up the road in Holidaysburg, Pennsylvania, three workers narrowly escaped death when they were found unconscious inside a tank car at GBW Railcar Services. Workers at the facility repair and clean tank cars used to carry liquids and chemicals. Like the cases mentioned above, a worker inside a tank car passed out from toxic fumes, and two of his co-workers went in to help him, passing out themselves. Investigators suspect low oxygen levels, which along with toxic gases like hydrogen sulfide, can kill people in confined spaces.

Like the case above, I find it hard to believe that a company like GBH which specializes in rail car service, has no knowledge of confined spaces. GBH owns and operates the The Greenbrier Companies and Watco Companies, railcar repair, refurbishment and maintenance businesses. Watco has received numerous OSHA citations in 2015, 2012 and 2011 for confined space violations, although none at this specific location.

No One Should Die in Confined Spaces

OSHA has had a general industry Confined Space standard since 1992 and the agency issued a Confined Space standard for the construction industry last year. The hazards are well known and the solutions are well recognized and proven to save lives. There is no excuse for workers to continue dying in Confined Spaces, and no excuse for their employers to claim ignorance. There is plenty of information out there, but the only way employers will get the message, and workers will stop dying is for OSHA to increase penalties, and for Congress to make it easier for OSHA to pursue criminal citations.

And knowing that workers are dying where companies should know better, I’m not really sure how Republicans in the House of Representatives can in good conscience vote to cut OSHA’s enforcement budget when workers lives depend on it being increased.

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