When Equipment Failures Turn into Employee Fatalities

In October of 2014, two wastewater treatment plant workers lost their lives in a tragic accident in El Paso, Texas. What should have been routine repair work quickly escalated into a life-threatening situation. The accident occurred while a pump was being replaced in an equipment room. According to reporting from the El Paso Times, the first worker entered a pump pit between two clarifying tanks to fix a substantial leak that was causing the space to fill with sludge. He was unable to stop the flow of liquid at the leaky valve and soon found himself unable to exit the pit.

As often happens, fatalities multiplied when a second worker entered the pit in an attempt to save his coworker. Both men drowned and their bodies were later recovered by firefighters. OSHA is investigating the fatalities.

What Lessons Can Be Learned?

Confined spaces are always hazardous because they are, by nature, difficult to enter and exit. This makes it imperative to pay special attention to evaluating the types of hazards present in a particular space. The OSHA investigation will provide details, but in this instance there may have been multiple contributing factors:

  • The proximity of giant tanks of sludge with valves that led into the pump pit posed a potential drowning hazard in the event of equipment failure.
  • There was apparently no way to close the valves without entering the pit, requiring a worker to enter an area that was flooding in order to attempt to correct the problem.
  • There was not an effective way for the worker to self-rescue easily if the situation rapidly worsened.
  • There was not a rescue team on standby prior to the worker entering the area and there was not a way for others to attempt a rescue without entering the space.

Safety Training Must Take Human Nature into Account

One thing this accident has in common with many other recent incidents is that it shows the importance of training and planning. The natural response many employees will have is to immediately try to fix a problem in an attempt to prevent significant property damage. An even more instinctive response is for a worker to come to another employee’s aid if there is an immediate threat to life or health.

An important goal of safety planning and training is to ensure that employees can react quickly and appropriately in a way that minimizes the risk of injury or death. DKF can help prepare your workforce to make the smart decisions in a crisis. Contact us today for a consultation to review your safety and rescue protocols.