Reprinted from NYCOSH UPDATE
September 28, 2010
It happened Labor Day of all days. Two workers died in a Tarrytown sewer after one who climbed down a manhole failed to come back up and another went down to try to save him. Later that week, the village administrator held a press conference in which he suggested that fault lay with the victims.
The union to which both victims, Anthony Ruggiero, Jr. and John Kelly, belonged, Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) shot back. In a separate press conference on September 14, CSEA officials slammed the village for failing to follow OSHA standards for permit-required confined spaces, including having no written program and neglecting to give employees proper training.
“These deaths were 100 percent preventable,” said Billy Riccaldo, CSEA Southern Region President. He said the Tarrytown administrator’s statements were “another example of employers putting the blame on workers rather than accepting the responsibility for providing the required workplace protections.”
Ruggiero was represented by CSEA through his job as a Tarrytown road maintenance foreman, Kelly through his work with the state Department of Transportation. Their deaths are under investigation by the state Public Employees Safety and Health Bureau (PESH).
The tragedy occurred after Ruggiero was called into work on Labor Day to clear a backed up sewer. More than two hours later, he, the public works department’s general foreman and another worker had found the manhole they believed was the source of the problem.
According to Tarrytown Village Administrator Michael Blau’s account, Kelly, a village volunteer firefighter, was also among those on the scene at this point. The general foreman called for a truck to clear the blockage. But Ruggiero noticed paper stuck in a 10-inch sewer line and, believing this was the cause of the backup, climbed down to clear it.
When Ruggiero didn’t come back up, Blau said, “the general foreman said he was going to go down the manhole. At that point, John Kelly went down the manhole to assist Anthony.”
With both men then at the bottom of the manhole, apparently unconscious, the general foreman lowered a gas meter showing an atmospheric oxygen concentration of 14 percent, Blau said. OSHA’s standard for confined space defines any oxygen concentration below 19.5 percent as hazardous.
Later, testing of air in the manhole found hydrogen sulfide, “sewer gas,” present at a concentration of 18 parts per million (ppm) to 25 ppm, Blau said. The monitoring was done after a ventilation fan was used, suggesting that earlier concentrations could have been higher.
Hydrogen sulfide is an extremely hazardous gas that can collect in poorly ventilated areas such as manholes. OSHA’s Permissible Exposure Limit is 10 ppm over an eight-hour shift with a 15-minute short-term exposure limit of 15 ppm. When hydrogen sulfide is present at a concentration of 300 ppm or above, it is considered immediately dangerous to life and health.
The cause of death for Ruggiero and Kelly has yet to be determined. According to Blau, the medical examiner found neither had broken any bones in the manhole.
CSEA is encouraging PESH to issue a willful violation, its most serious. The union’s own initial investigation found:
• The village did not identify and evaluate all permit-required confined spaces that might be entered by its employees.
• Entry into permit-required confined spaces without first performing air monitoring was done on a regular basis.
• No written permit-required confined space program was in place.
• No permit was completed before entry of this manhole.
• No signs were posted outside the manhole warning of its dangers.
• Confined space training which workers had received in 2007 was insufficient.
“If [Ruggiero] had received proper training, he would not have entered the manhole,” Riccaldo said. And it seems that if the village had followed required procedures, Kelly might not have felt the need to rescue him. Jeff Hyman, safety and health specialist for CSEA’s Southern Region, noted that employers are supposed to designate a rescue team prior to entry of this type of confined space. According to NIOSH, he said, “Sixty-five percent of confined space fatalities are would-be rescuers.