Fla. Utility Cited in 3 Workers’ Deaths

A confined space in which employees of a South Florida utility company were working turned out to be deadly. They paid for the company’s disregard of safety with their lives. Now federal safety watchdogs are making the company pay some recompense for their negligence.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cited a South Florida utility company and related contracting company after the agency’s investigation into the deaths of three workers who succumbed to toxic gases in a manhole on Jan. 16, 2017.

Elway Gray, a 34-year-old pipe layer, entered the manhole – a confined space – and quickly became unresponsive. Louis O’Keefe, a 49-year-old laborer, entered the hole and attempted to rescue Gray. After O’Keefe also became unresponsive, Robert Wilson, a 24-year-old equipment operator, followed to help his fallen coworkers. All three men died. Post-incident atmospheric testing in the manhole revealed lethal levels of hydrogen sulfide and carbon monoxide. Two other employees and a volunteer firefighter were also exposed to the toxic gases in the manhole during rescue attempts but survived.

OSHA investigators cited Douglas N. Higgins, Inc. and its related contracting company, McKenna Contracting, LLC with 10 serious violations totaling $119,507, in penalties. The incident-related serious violations are for failing to purge or ventilate the confined space before entry, exposing the workers to an asphyxiation hazard, and not providing necessary rescue and emergency equipment for employees that were overcome inside a permit-required confined space.

In addition, OSHA issued serious citations to Higgins and McKenna Contracting for failing to:

  • Develop and implement a written hazard communication program for a worksite in which employees were exposed to dangerous chemicals and gases.
  • Use a calibrated direct-reading device to test for toxic gases, creating an asphyxiation hazard.
  • Create and document the confined space entry permit.
  • Provide training to employees in the safe performance of their assigned duties in permit-required confined spaces.
  • Provide a guardrail around the manhole opening, exposing employees to a fall hazard.

“The hazards of working in manholes are well established, but there are ways to make it safe,” said Condell Eastmond, the OSHA area director in Fort Lauderdale. “Three employees needlessly lost their lives and others were injured due to their employer’s failure to follow safe work practices.”

The citations for D.N. Higgins can be viewed at: https://www.dol.gov/sites/default/files/newsroom/newsreleases/OSHA20171001.pdf

Founded in Ann Arbor, Michigan, D.N. Higgins expanded in 1989 with the opening of its Naples office. The company specializes in underground installations of mechanical systems, pump stations, storm water drainage systems and municipal infrastructure. McKenna Contracting, LLC was formed in 2012 and is a related company that provides contract administration and labor to Higgins’ jobsites in Florida.

The companies have 15 business days from receipt of its citations and proposed penalties to contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

To ask questions; obtain compliance assistance; file a complaint or report amputations, eye loss, workplace hospitalizations, fatalities or situations posing imminent danger to workers, the public should call OSHA’s toll-free hotline at 800-321-OSHA (6742) or the agency’s Fort Lauderdale Area Office at 954-424-0242.

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