A tragedy at the McCook Waste Water Treatment Plant this summer was a grim reminder to municipalities across the state that gases in an enclosed space can be deadly.
Though an official report has not been released concerning the exact cause of death of two city workers who were found at the plant, preliminary reports are that they were overcome by toxic gas in the sludge pumphouse.
Dylan Wiemer, Village of Utica Maintenance Worker, knows how quickly a disaster like this can happen. He is one of thousands of city staff across the state who enter lift stations, manholes and other enclosed areas during the course of their jobs.
“There is always the risk of things going bad when you’re working in a confined space. We’re trained not to go into an enclosed area to help a downed co-worker but, in that situation, I can see how it would be very hard not to do so,” Wiemer said.
A review of the recommended safety practices when working in confined spaces is below:
- A plan of the purpose for entering should be established with a time estimate as to how long that task will take. The person entering the space needs to know the exact work to be done, the location, and the hazards involved. They should be knowledgeable about the precautions they need to take before, during and after they’ve completed the task.
-There should always be a “buddy system” when work needs to be in done in a confined area that includes the entrant and an attendant. Workers should be equipped with protective equipment and a way to communicate with each other during the course of the work project.
-Before entering the confined space atmospheric conditions need to be identified. Before entering, Wiemer uses a gas detector that will give a reading as to the amount of oxygen in the air of a confined space. Too little or too much oxygen can prove deadly. The gas detector will also measure the concentration of toxic gases in the air and alert the user when conditions are too dangerous to enter. If the air is identified as unsafe, the area must be barricaded to prevent entry.
-Ventilate the space as much as possible as the work is being done. Be aware that work being done in the area including welding or cutting, will change the quality of the air in the enclosed area and possibly make it too dangerous to work in.
-The attendant should conduct periodic testing of the air while the entrant is working in the space. Wiemer noted that the gas detector used to measure the amount of gas in the area needs to be calibrated yearly.
The key safety points to remember when working in a confined area are to be properly trained in working in enclosed spaces; have a specific plan of the task to be done in the area; work with another person who is available close outside of the enclosed area; have a method of communication while working in the area; and monitor the conditions of the air quality while working in the space.
Wiemer stresses that every community should have a properly working gas detector. Utica purchased Utica’s through a Lean on LARM Safety Grant from the League Association of Risk Management. The grant is available to all LARM members.
Pictured is Dylan Wiemer, Village of Utica Maintenance Worker