Safety – All In The Family: One Death Is Tragic, Three More Is Unthinkable

Photo by Olya Kobruseva on

Those of us who grew up in agricultural areas or have been in the safety business know this story all too well. The names change, but the scenarios rarely deviate much…

Here’s a real life scenario. You are working with a small group of two to four people and one person must go into a small area to check on something. The area is not only small it has limited entry and exit. Maybe there’s a problem in this area that needs to be fixed or a stage in the process needs to be checked. There’s a pool of liquid, they walk through it and withing seconds you see them fall to the floor.

What do you do? Rush in? Something else? What if the person down is a relative, a close friend, your lover?

I just read a story about a similar scenario and it brought me back to one of my jobs from a former life.

Four men died of asphyxiation in the fermentation operation of a family owned vineyard in Paola, Italy.

Dead in the incident were two men aged 70 and two men between age 45 and one 50. Two of the men were brothers. I presume that the brothers were also part of the family that owned the winery.

It is suspected that an uncontrolled release of carbon dioxide (CO2) was the cause of asphyxiation. Tragic. Worse yet 4 times more tragic than necessary.

Why 4 times more tragic than needed? Good question.

As is common in this type of tragedy, one of the 70 year old men was overcome while stirring the vat creating a large release of CO2 gas. The other 70 year old comes in to rescue man number one and is overcome, enter would be rescuer number two, then his brother for would be rescuer number three. Alas 4 dead.

Why does this story remind me of a job in a former life? Another good question.

A large and important part of my old job in safety sales was training people about the uses and most importantly the limitations of the safety equipment that they purchased and used on the job.

When training people on gas detection equipment there was one line that I always said and repeated. “Year in and year out, there is one common and tragic fact; for every four confined space deaths, three of them are would be rescuers.”

In many of these tragedies every death will be from the same family, or a close nit work force. Frequently on a family farm in the grain silo when the grain ferments and produces a lethal dose of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) or a lack of oxygen displaced by the NO2.

A grandson goes in and dies, a brother goes in to find him and dies, dad goes in to find them and dies, finally grandpa goes in too and dies. Google it, this happens far too often.

Work environments with the potential of producing a toxic environment must be monitored for the specific toxin, oxygen levels and combustibility. For this application most employers will have a common 4 gas reading monitor. This type of monitor typically has sensors that will read oxygen, carbon monoxide, combustibles and hydrogen sulfide.

Typical 4 gas monitor. Explosive material, oxygen, CO and H2S. Use primarily is sewer type environments.

In the case of this Italian winery CO2 and/or a lack of sufficient ventilation are suspected as the culprit.

How could the first death in these situations be averted? Which, of course would avert all four deaths. Proper ventilation for one. Continual monitoring of the atmosphere too. Which unfortunately is not always enough to prevent the first death. Why? Another good question.

In the case of standing fermented liquid like in a sewer type confined space, or in this case fermented wine in a vat, the act of stirring up the liquid will release all of the gas at once creating the lethal atmosphere. In the case of a sewer, hydrogen sulfide is released when a pool of sewer water is walked through releasing all of the gas at once. In the winery case it was CO2. The only way to prevent death in either event is a Self Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA). That’s the type of respirator that firefighters use when entering a dangerous space.

SCBA. Probably a 30 minute cylinder of breathable air.

As for the dead would be rescuers. What was their mistake? Yet another good question.

When a worker is in a potentially deadly environment, setting up and using retrieval equipment is the the only way to assure that a rescuer does not need to go in. If no retrieval equipment was set up and rescue needs to occur, the rescuers wear SCBA to get the victim out.

Retrieval equipment. One person in and one watching over them ready to crank them out fast and safely.

Over kill? Maybe, but I’d ask the families and close friends and coworkers of any of these victims.

The really tragic part of our dead would be rescuers. They were most likely trying to rescue a corpse. When an environment becomes Immediately Deadly to Life and Health (IDLH) the victim is dead within a couple of minutes or even seconds. Rescue is almost never feasible.

The first rule of thumb when attempting rescue; don’t become the second victim. Plan ahead and proceed with caution. When the victim is a close coworker, friend or relative that becomes VERY difficult. Probably why these multiple deaths are frequently in family owned and run businesses.

In reality you should be thinking body recovery, not saving a fellow human being. That’s cold, but it is true most of the time.

Published by R Dub's Rub

Conversational BLOG writer and contributing writer for LocaLeben magazine. My BLOG entries represent observations that intrigue, amuse, inspire or stimulate my appetite.

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