Tragic Accident in Key Largo


I hate to see awful stuff like this.

Three killed in what sounds like a confined space accident.

Three contracted utility workers died Monday morning after becoming overwhelmed by gas fumes inside a drainage trench located in a Key Largo subdivision.

The workers, who were employed by a private company, had gone underground to look into a dip in a newly paved Key Largo road.

A Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department firefighter who went underground to their rescue also was overcome by fumes and was airlifted to Ryder Trauma Center in Miami in serious condition, said Monroe sheriff’s spokeswoman Deputy Becky Herrin. Two deputies were taken to Mariners Hospital in the Keys for observation, she said.

Hydrogen sulfide can be an efficient killer in confined spaces.  You lose the ability to smell hydrogen sulfide quickly at harmful concentrations, and almost immediately at deadly concentrations.  

Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay said the firefighter decided to enter the hole without his air pack because the hole was not wide enough to fit the man and his equipment.

The county contracted workers were in the 15-foot hole investigating a dip in the road, Ramsay said. The gas was a mixture of hydrogen sulfide and methane.

Another firefighter was able to get in the hole with his air pack and rescue his colleague.

It’s really common for rescuers to be overcome, too, if they go in without safety equipment (ie. self contained breathing apparatus, ventilation equipment, gas monitor).  The natural instinct is to go in after somebody and try and pull them out.

The workers were employed by D.N. Higgins, a construction contractor, but it’s not clear exactly what they were working on.

The Citizen said this:

Three construction contractors working for Monroe County have died in a fatal incident at Mile Marker 106, according to county officials.

The Reporter referred to them as “county contracted workers” in one of the excerpts above, but then also said:

The workers, who are not employees of the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District, work for D.N. Higgins, a private contractor with a Florida branch office in Naples, according to Paul Christian, general manager of the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District.

Ramsay said drainage holes typically have vents to avoid gas build-ups, and this hole showed no signs of venting.

So it’s not entirely clear whose project this was.  Monroe County or KLWTD.  It sounds like it was most likely Monroe County, but there’s no clear description of the project.  And Christian’s comments, as presented by the Reporter, don’t explicitly address it one way or the other.  Press reports refer to the structure as a “wastewater drainage manhole”, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  They are conflating wastewater and storm water – two separate systems overseen by two separate entities.

Perhaps I’m being hyper-technical here.  After all, the real point of all this is that people died and got hurt.  But how do you prevent something like this from happening again if you don’t understand how it happened in the first place?

Ramsay elaborated:

He said his detectives will be investigating the deaths. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is also conducting an investigation, Herrin said.


Apparently D.N. Higgins has been in trouble for this very thing before.

In April, 2002, an Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspection of a Higgins project in a Marco Island manhole resulted in a $2,500 fine that got settled for $1,875.

The citation said, among other violations, that atmospheric testing wasn’t performed; a confined space entry program wasn’t implemented; confined space entry permits weren’t implemented by a qualified person; a rescue plan wasn’t implemented; rescue services weren’t available in a timely manner; and rescue equipment wasn’t available at the site.

Tragic.  Sad.  Preventable.  Confined space is a known hazard.  A similar incident happened on an FPL job a few years ago.  Heart goes out to the firefighter, who will hopefully make a full recovery, and the families of the deceased.

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