Workers dying from asphyxiation in a confined space is a senseless tragedy.  When four men lose their lives in this way, with three of them dying in an attempt to rescue the other, it is a genuine disaster.  Yesterday, four men died inside a 12-foot deep sewer line at the Lakehead Blacktop Demolition Landfill in the Village of Superior, Wisconsin.  County Sheriff Tom Dalbec said:

“One of the workers was trying to repair a pump or clear a blockage in the sewer line last yesterday when he was overcome by hydrogen sulfide fumes.  …First one goes down and is overcome by gas and drops or falls, and the second one looking down from above sees the first one, figures he can go down to rescue.  Same thing happens to him, the third one same thing and fourth one same thing happens.'”

The victims are Joseph Kimmes III, 44, and Scott Kimmes, 40, (brothers and managers of the company), and Harold “Tim’’ Olsen, 47, (an employee) and Paul Cossalter, 41, an electrical contractor.

Fourteen years ago, OSHA promised a rule to protect construction workers from this exact kind of danger.  Where is that much needed safety standard?

At any type of landfill–whether it’s housing regular household waste or, like this one, used for construction materials and demolition waste–generates liquid leachate that has to be drained and collected so as not to pollute the soil and surrounding watershed.  (The sewer pipe in which these men were killed was likely part of the Lakehead Blacktop Demolition Landfill’s leachate collection system.)

Worker deaths in confined spaces are absolutely preventable.  OSHA issued a rule in 1993 to protect workers in so-called “general industry” from the hazards associated with working in confined spaces (e.g., storage tanks, sewers, silos).  It includes requirements for measuring the air quality inside the space so that workers know whether respirators or breathing apparatuses are required, and extensive safety training so that rescues don’t turn deadly for co-workers.

I believe this landfill operation would be considered “general industry,” and given the prevalence of sewer lines, pipes and other confined spaces at a landfill, the company should have had a confined space program.  I’m sure that OSHA’s accident investigators out of the Eau Claire and Chicago offices will be examining the program’s adequacy and the thoroughness of its safety training.

But what about workers in construction, for which there is still no OSHA confined space standard?  As part of a rulemaking settlement in 1994 with the United Steelworkers, OSHA agreed to propose a construction industry-specific confined space rule.  The proposed rule has been in the works for years, and in the Secretary of Labor’s most recent regulatory agenda (April 2007), Secretary Chao said it would be proposed in September 2007.  The proposal was submitted to OMB in mid-July and was returned to OSHA (“Consistent with Change” – whatever that means) on October 12.

With five dead workers last month at the Xcel hydroelectric plant in Colorado (here), the four men yesterday in Wisconsin, and the other worker-victims of confined space asphyxiation whose deaths never made a news story, OSHA must immediately publish this confined space rule PROPOSAL.  There will never be a FINAL rule until OSHA gets the ball moving.

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