Lessons Shared #1 – “The Graveyards are full of Heroes”

I had to fight back tears the first time I read this NIOSH report. Having lived on a family farm for a short period, it was very easy for me to imagine the reaction of the people involved…

A 43-year-old dairy farm owner (victim #1) and his 23-year-old son (victim #2) died from asphyxiation after entering one of two adjacent 8-foot-deep manure-waste pits that were connected by a tunnel. The pits were located under each half of the end of a dairy holding barn and were connected so that both pits could be pumped from one side. The incident was unwitnessed but evidence suggests the following sequence of events. The two victims were pumping the manure from the pit into a manure spreader tank using a pump located outside the barn that was being driven by a tractor’s power take-off. The workers had pumped the manure from the pit containing the pump intake hose; however, the manure from the adjacent pit could not be pumped because the tunnel connecting the pits was obstructed. The father removed a steel grate cover and descended an aluminum ladder into the nearly empty pit. As he began to clear the tunnel of obstruction, the father was overcome. The son entered the pit in an attempt to rescue his father and was also overcome. The victims were discovered 22 hours later by the farm owner’s wife, and the mother of the 23-year-old victim.

There are many lessons we can learn from this incident – even though it isn’t an Ammonia process, let alone a PSM covered process, but the primary one I’d like to talk about is human nature.

It’s human nature to try and help when you see a co-worker in trouble. I think it’s even more common in the blue-collar skilled trades than in many other lines of work: we are “get ‘er done” types of people. We’re used to solving problems on the fly. We’re confident we can work our way out of little jams.

What we have to be wary of is letting our heart over-rule our brain. You’re more likely to add to the body/injury count than you are to help if you don’t stop and think about what you are going to do. Here are some other examples:

  • A 31-year-old male assistant construction supervisor (victim) entered an oxygen-deficient manhole to close a valve and collapsed at the bottom. In a rescue attempt a labor foreman (male, age 34) and the victim’s supervisor (male, age 36) also entered the manhole and also collapsed. All three workers were pronounced dead at the scene by the county coroner. (report)
  • A 25-year-old male electroplater (victim) died after entering a metal plating vat he was cleaning. Four male co-workers also died when they entered the vat in rescue attempts. (report)
  • A 31-year-old male dairy farm laborer entered a manure pit to clear a pipe, lost consciousness, and collapsed at the bottom. In a rescue attempt, his 33-year-old brother, also a farm laborer, entered the pit, lost consciousness, and collapsed. Both workers (hereinafter referred to as initial victim and rescuer victim) were pronounced dead at the scene. (report)
  • A 43-year-old production foreman of a wire processing company was summoned to aid a maintenance crewman (his son), who had collapsed at the bottom of an open top clarifying tank. The 18 year-old summer employee had been overcome by fumes liberated from chemical sludge that he was removing from inside the tank. In a rescue attempt the production foreman collapsed upon entering the tank. He was later removed from the tank. by the fire/rescue team and pronounced dead. The fire/rescue team also removed the crewman. He was admitted to the intensive care unit of a local hospital and later released. (report)
  • Two workers died while attempting to rescue a third worker who had entered a fracturing tank at a natural gas well. A total of four men entered the. tank and were overcome by natural gas. The two workers who died drowned in 30 inches of liquid (water, gas, acid, and possibly oil) which had been released into the tank during “blow down” procedures. The other two workers, both rig hands, required medical treatment at local hospitals. (report)

Please use these stories to talk to your maintenance staff about the VERY REAL hazards of acting “in the moment” in an attempt to rescue their coworkers. Hopefully these stories hit home and if they find themselves in similar situations, they may take some time to consider their actions before their rescue attempt inadvertently results in another of these sad stories.

About Brian Chapin

PSM / RMP Compliance Consultant
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