On July 18, OSHA released a statement detailing their issuance of numerous penalties to a utilities company and an associated contracting company in Florida following the death of three employees at the beginning of the year.
It was Jan. 19 in Key Largo when employees from the companies in dispute, which do piping and sewer installations and repairs, were tasked with laying pipe accessed through a manhole. According to OSHA, one employee went underground through the manhole but became unresponsive after a short time. A second employee went to rescue the first and also failed to respond. Following this, a third employee entered the subterranean cavity and he did not return calls to the surface.
All three men died at the scene. An investigation after the incident found the men suffered from lethal levels of hydrogen sulfide and carbon monoxide concentrated in the confined space.
Two other employees and a veteran firefighter also suffered injuries during the event but survived. However, the firefighter was in critical condition and had to be placed in an induced coma for several days before being discharged to heal over the course of a few months.
OSHA assigned 10 penalties to the utilities company, amounting to $119,507. As detailed in the official citation, violations included failure to aerate or ventilate a confined area, failure to test for toxic gases via a calibrated direct-reading device, not supplying rescue and emergency equipment to employees within a confined space and a lack of a guardrail around the manhole opening, among others.
"The hazards of working in manholes are well established, but there are ways to make it safe," said Condell Eastmond, Fort Lauderdale area OSHA director, in the agency's official statement following the investigation. "Three employees needlessly lost their lives and others were injured due to their employer's failure to follow safe work practices."
According to the firefighter news and training site Firehouse, the Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department noted that it was unprepared in its response to the emergency that left one of their servicemen hospitalized.
"It is true that neither of the fire departments which have served Key Largo over the last decade have had any significant training in trench rescue," said the department's attorney in a statement, as reported by Firehouse. "Following this incident, fire departments all over the county -- including us -- are now training in this type of rescue."
The health and safety of employees is paramount for companies in general industry. Incidents such as this highlight how important it is to provide optimum protections from hazardous situations at work sites.