No Fun At All

This trip down a water slide could have cost a sewer contractor employee his life. The safety lesson is clear: Follow procedures and never take shortcuts.
No Fun At All
A well-trained staff and quick response time help save a 37-year-old contract worker’s life after he was swept away inside a large sewer interceptor. (Photo courtesy of Terry Soden)

Imagine working inside a large sewer interceptor and being swept away by the current. That’s a “water slide” trip no one would enjoy.

Yet it happened to a 37-year-old contract worker in Pierce County, Wash., back on March 21. The obvious question is: How does something like this happen? The man sustained only minor injuries — he was rescued, then treated and released at a local hospital — but it’s a minor miracle that he survived.

The man, an employee of Frank Coluccio Construction Co. in Seattle, was working in a temporary access shaft built for a project that involved lining of the sewer interceptor, which carries all the flow to Pierce County’s Chambers Creek Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant in University Place, Wash.

By all accounts, he and co-workers had performed a proper confined-space entry with all necessary equipment. But the man, while checking the pipe alignment, decided to unclip his safety harness to look around the corner and into the pipe. He somehow became caught in the flow of sewage (about 1,600 gpm) and, because untethered, was swept downstream.

This incident ended happily because the Pierce County collection system maintenance team acted quickly and heroically, drawing on extensive mandatory training members had taken over the years. But there are two obvious lessons:

First, avoid taking shortcuts or deviating from safety procedures at any time, in any way, when working in sewers. Second, never underestimate the importance of safety training. Because, you never know.


Deep underground

County personnel reported that the man was working inside the access shaft some 150 feet below ground. The concrete pipe was to be lined with a reinforced fiberglass liner, and the installation required two temporary access shafts to enable liner placement.

Terry Soden, the county sewer and water utility’s maintenance and operations manager, noted that about 400 feet from where the man slid into the pipe, the slope dropped off to a 4 percent grade and the flow sped up significantly. The man ultimately slid some 3,200 feet down the pipe and passed two access points before managing to stop himself just beyond the energy dissipater where the pipe narrowed to 48 inches.

That was about 300 feet from the bar screens in the treatment plant headworks. “What made the rescue possible was that he was able to communicate verbally,” Soden reported. “As he was going down that pipe, not connected to anything and with no communication device, he could have run into some obstruction, bumped his head and become unconscious. Then we wouldn’t have known where he was in the system.

“When our people got a call from our inspector on the surface just shortly after it occurred, they started opening all three access points on the wastewater treatment plant site. They were actually able to hear him yelling, so they could pin down where he was. It’s also fortunate that there was enough headspace in the pipe to allow him to breathe.”


Sequence of events

According to the county’s report on the incident, public works and utilities inspector Bob Buckley called maintenance program manager Scott Roth at the treatment plant at 7:53 a.m. to report the accident. “Roth immediately used his two-way radio to alert everyone at the plant that an emergency confined-space entry maneuver with harnesses and lifelines was needed,” according to an account written by Mary Powers, county public information officer.

“Collection system manager Larry Butner grabbed his high-powered flashlight and a chain hoist and ran to the most upstream point, the energy dissipater. It is pitch black inside the pipe, and his light would help the man see. Meanwhile, the others set up hoists and formed two-man entry teams at the next two downstream points.”

West Pierce Fire and Rescue was called just before 8 a.m. and told to prepare for a swift-water rescue.

By the sound of the man’s voice, the county crew determined that he had passed the energy dissipater and was moving toward the headworks. At the next opening, they lowered a rope and waited. Finally they saw a hand emerge from the water and grab the rope. The man then stood up and grabbed the manhole ladder, about 25 feet below grade.

Directed by confined-space entry supervisor Mark Newport and West Pierce Fire and Rescue commander Kevin Kroenert, an employee was lowered to hook a retrieval cable to the man just as he was letting go of the ladder.

The West Pierce firefighters and paramedics removed the man’s gear as soon as he was pulled to the surface, decontaminated him in an on-site shower, and took him to the local hospital, where we was treated for minor injuries and released.


Barely survived

At the time he was rescued, the man was oriented feet downstream, and his waders were full of water. His hardhat had been knocked off when he passed under a grate. Powers reported that Kroenert told county utility managers, “This man wouldn’t be alive today if it weren’t for your people. I credit them for saving his life, and it was great working with people who didn’t lose their cool and are well-versed in their training.”

Local news reports said the state Department of Labor & Industries was investigating whether the accident involved violations of any worker safety laws.

Soden noted that all treatment plant and collection system employees are required to pass confined-space entry and fall protection training. “Everybody in the industry practices confined-space entry and self-rescue,” he said. “One thing we learn is always to be connected, so that if you have to be retrieved, you’re attached to a mechanical device to help get you out.

“When we train, we have a mock manhole. All 80 members of my staff in the maintenance and operations realm train on that. They actually have to pull somebody up and be pulled up. We train on this annually. I’ve been here 25 years, and we’d never before had an incident where we had to retrieve somebody in an emergency situation.

“We applied what we had learned about keeping ourselves and our co-workers safe. It worked out rather well. In 30 minutes, it was all over but the shouting. I’m very proud of my staff. In the midst of duress, they handled it very professionally.”


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