Workers risk exposure to several different hazards throughout their workday. You can anticipate some of the hazards they might come across. Your company has processes and procedures in place to help reduce the number of incidents in the workplace. But, what about the hazards that you don’t anticipate?
Personal protective equipment (PPE) is an employee’s last line of defense.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), “controlling exposures to occupational hazards is the fundamental method of protecting workers.” Using PPE is one of those methods, but one that should be the very last resort.
Are you familiar with the Hierarchy of Controls? It’s the safety industry’s model for protecting workers. It gives the user a visual representation of which control methods will be most effective.
You’ll notice that PPE is shown at the very bottom of the Hierarchy. It should not be relied on as the only method for protecting your employees. But, it’s still important — because without it, workers could suffer serious injuries, or even death.
In the next section of this post, we’re going to review 4 fatal incidents that could have been prevented with proper or additional PPE.
These fatalities all occurred within the last 10 years. They took place in a variety of industries, and no two situations were the same. Workers of all different ages, trades, and skill levels were involved. They do have one thing in common — the workers were all killed from unexpected flash fire events.
There were a number of contributing factors for each of these incidents. It’s very likely that if more stringent control measures were put in place these deaths could have been prevented. Today, we’re going to focus on one method in particular, personal protective equipment — the last line of defense.
Fatality #1: Worker Killed in a Trench Fire
In 2012, a 26 year old laborer died while performing a maintenance task. He worked in the oil and gas industry. He was new to the job and had only been employed for two months. He died from injuries sustained during a flash fire event. The fire was caused by an ignition of crude oil vapors.
At the time of the incident, the employee was working with two other maintenance workers. They were trying to repair a leaking crude oil flow line. The line connected the production well to its tank battery.
In order to gain better access, they decided to dig a trench. They then cut out a section of pipe using a cold cutter. At first, they tried to thread the cut using a manual pipe threader machine, but the dies on the threader were dull.
So, they obtained new dies from the office to replace the dull ones. Instead of installing it on the manual threader, the employees installed it on a different, electric machine.
When the incident occurred, two employees were in the trench with the electric threading machine. Quite suddenly, the threader caused nearby flammable vapors to ignite. A flash fire engulfed the trench with flames while the two employees were still inside.
The third employee emptied two fire extinguishers just to extinguish the fire. Both of the victims were hospitalized with second- and third-degree burns. One died from his injuries while in the hospital.
Flame-resistant (FR) clothing could have made a difference in this case. The workers sustained burns to their arms, neck, and face. Simple coveralls could have minimized the extent of burns that they received. Workers in the oil and gas industry are required to wear FR clothing when there is potential for a flash fire — including whenever maintenance tasks such as these are performed.
Fatality #2: Worker Killed While Refueling a Drill
In 2010, a 38 year old service truck operator died while refueling a track-mounted highwall drill. The employee worked at a surface coal mine in Alabama.
The cause of death was from injuries sustained after an ignition/explosion that occurred while performing his job. He was placing the fuel nozzle into the diesel fuel tank when it happened. One witness reported hearing and feeling the explosion. When he turned to see what happened, he noticed the victim lying on the ground engulfed in flames.
This employee and his workplace fell under MSHA jurisdiction. MSHA is the Mine Safety and Health Administration. It’s similar to OSHA, but it has different laws and regulations. Workers performing these types of jobs in this industry are not necessarily required to wear FR clothing.
Imagine if this person had been wearing the proper personal protective equipment for his job. He’d likely still be alive today. Even when PPE isn’t required by OSHA or MSHA standard, you still want to consider wearing it. It’s okay to go above and beyond the minimum requirements. In fact, employers should.
When you think about it, FR clothing just makes sense for workers who handle fuel all day. The fatality report from this incident also noted that proper engineering and administrative controls were not in place.
Additional PPE would have protected this employee. It would have been his saving grace that could have prevented this fatality. This is especially true since the other control methods from the Hierarchy were not in place. Remember, PPE is a person’s last line of defense.
Fatality #3: Worker Killed From Methane Explosion
In 2016, a 58 year old coal miner died from injuries he sustained during an explosion of methane gas. He was working above ground at the time of the incident. The explosion took place underground, in a 753 foot deep shaft.
The victim was standing on expanded metal grating which covered the opening of the shaft. He and another employee were working to repair loose guarding on a pump that feeds down into the shaft. The second worker had just stepped off the grating to grab a tool when the incident occurred.
He remembers hearing a noise, loud like a jet engine, coming from inside the shaft. He yelled for his co-worker, the victim, to run. But he was standing in the direct line of fire. He was still on the grating of the shaft cover.
The noise that the witness heard was a methane explosion, traveling upward and out of the shaft. After an investigation, it was determined that the explosion took place because sparks and slag from their welding work had fallen into the shaft. They then made contact with excessive levels of methane.
The methane ignited, and created an intense fire and explosion. The victim received first aid on site, was evacuated via helicopter, and died at the hospital several days later.
The report does not specify what type of clothing the victim was wearing. Flame-resistant materials may have protected him some. But, his death was attributed to “internal burns.” It’s also reported that he received burns and lacerations to his face.
There are, however, different kinds of PPE and safety equipment that could have prevented this incident. In this particular case, the presence of methane was a known potential. And even though the area was abundant with “no smoke or open flame” signs, nothing was done to prevent sparks from falling down into the shaft. Welding blankets would have prevented that. A gas monitor could have been used as well, to detect the presence of methane.
Fatality #4: Three Workers Killed From Flash Fire
In 2017, three technicians were killed and another injured while performing maintenance on an automobile. The workers were downstairs underneath an express lube bay. The work space is a 30’ x 30’ concrete structure.
They were tasked with draining oil, replacing the oil filter, and cleaning brakes. They also operated a hydraulic automotive lift from inside the workspace.
A flash fire occurred from a buildup of highly flammable liquids in vapors in the small space. It was later discovered that the built-in air ventilation system for the space was in the “off” position. A badly burnt electric evaporative cooler was also found in the space, sitting on a metal stand. It was plugged in, along with multiple other power cords to a 3-in-1 extension.
One of these ignition sources ignited the flammables in the workspace. The flash fire killed three technicians, and sent a fourth to the hospital.
Three citations were issued after this event. The violations involved 1) flammable and combustible liquids, 2) hazardous locations, and 3) hazard communication. There was an excessive amount of cleaning products and used oil rags. A gasoline powered pressure washer was used to clean the floors in this area.
If engineering and administrative controls were minimal, so was the consideration for PPE. There were not enough safety protocols in place. That’s exactly when and why personal protective equipment plays such a major role in the health and safety of employees.
The Importance of The Right PPE on the Job
PPE can help minimize the extent of workplace accidents and injuries. It’s used to protect workers from an unexpected hazard or event. Without the right PPE, workers can experience serious pain and suffering. And sadly, they can also be killed.
Don’t let this happen to your employees. Make sure they wear the right gear. Put them in the clothing and protective equipment that will help keep them safe. And remember, the first line of defense is to eliminate the hazards. The Hierarchy of Controls exists for a reason, to protect your workers from tragedy such as these.
Reach out to us if you have any further questions about personal protective equipment.