Rescuers needed rescuing, and one didn’t make it

by on April 24, 2012 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Workplace Safety Network

In a life-threatening emergency, people naturally want to rush in and save co-workers. But that can make things worse if the rescuers end up in trouble, too.

That’s what happened to an Arizona employer, with heavy financial and criminal consequences.

The scenario: A worker for the employer, a sewage handling and treatment company, was told to enter an emptied sewage tank to perform upgrade work on it. Through a series of bad supervisory decisions and misunderstandings, he was inside the tank when sewage began to flow back into it.

Floating face down
A co-worker discovered him a few minutes later floating face down in the sewage, overcome by fumes. The co-worker climbed down into the tank to attempt a rescue, but was in his turn overcome.

Another worker rushed in, to suffer the same result, and eventually the supervisor herself did, too. Of the three would-be rescuers, one died, one was left with serious lung injuries, and the supervisor alone escaped with no lasting damage. And for all that, the employee who was the object of the rescue attempts died anyway.

The state filed criminal charges of negligent homicide and aggravated assault, partly as a result of the original situation and partly the botched rescue. The lack of an emergency plan figured high in the state’s evidence proving negligence.

The decision
And when the charges got to court, a jury convicted two company officers. They got suspended jail sentences, and the company was fined almost $1.8 million.

The court said there was a known danger in working in confined spaces where colorless toxic gas could accumulate. Company employees frequently had to do this.

Thus, the company and the supervisor should have been prepared with an emergency plan that took account of the danger and avoided putting rescuers in further peril.

The company took the case to a state appeals court, but got nowhere. The judgment stood.

OSHA lays down detailed procedures for monitoring and, if necessary, rescuing workers who work in confined spaces. But there are many other situations – work at heights or over water, for example – where rescue may become necessary.

Prudent Safety Directors will want to make sure that:

  • supervisors, the first responders in case of emergency, are thoroughly conversant with the company’s rescue plan(s),
  • reminders of what to do and who to call in case of emergency are prominently posted, and
  • employees are trained to implement the rescue plan under adverse conditions that may include time pressure, communication difficulties and incipient panic.

Cite: State of Arizona v. Far West Water & Sewer, No. 1 CA-CR 06-0160, Ariz. App.

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