When it comes to confined space hazards, like the one that took the lives of two brothers last year at a composting facility in California, companies need to pay closer attention to proper safety precautions, industry experts say.
"Confined spaces are kind of an unusual animal," said Bill Schneider, senior project manager for GT Environmental Inc. "Confined spaces are things that companies have that sometimes they don’t take ... seriously enough. I don’t want to say they get complacent, but they get comfortable with them, and they don’t see why that is a problem. ‘Why can’t we just walk in there, do our work and walk out?’ "
Westerville, Ohio-based GT Environmental provides air, water and hazardous waste environmental consulting services, solid waste management planning and safety consulting services to government and industrial clients.
"Sometimes, composting is a facility that people have kind of overlooked, haven’t thought about this issue at all or never envisioned it was a big deal," said Nellie Brown, a certified industrial hygienist and director of Workplace Health and Safety Programs for Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. "After all, ‘I’m making piles of things, moving them around. How bad can that be?’ "
For many composting facilities, Brown said, the focus is often on the economic survival of the business and other day-to-day issues. It’s understandable for safety regulations to slip in that scenario, she said, but, in the end, it’s more important to keep a facility safe than to worry about a potential odor problem.
"There’s a variety of considerations I think people simply are balancing, and survivability of their operation may be a big one," Brown said. "I think that’s natural. People are running a business and they have to make it work."
At an upcoming U.S. Composting Council conference, Brown will be giving workshops on health and safety in composting and on vulnerability analysis.
"I call it ‘When Bad Things Happen at Your Facility,’ " Brown said. "It’s a way to get people thinking ahead about issues of things that can go wrong and being prepared to handle those. You have to be able to think on your feet. … I’m finding that the people interested in health and safety issues in composting are increasing each year."
Sharon Barnes, co-owner of Huron, Ohio-based Barnes Nursery Inc. and president of the Organics Recycling Association of Ohio, has seen the composting industry grow during her 25-plus years on the job. She also knows the safety hazards.
She doesn’t handle sewage sludge and wastewater, like the Lamont, Calif.-based Community Recycling & Resource Recovery Inc. facility where 16-year-old Armando Ramirez and his 22-year-old brother Eladio Ramirez were overcome on Oct. 12 by lethal gases inside a drainage pipe. But she said she’s familiar with the dangers that can arise.
"When you’re managing that material, it demands much more controls," she said. "I have been in biosolids composting facilities that are indoors and the fumes can be overwhelming. You really need ventilation; worker safety in those types of facilities sets up different kinds of things that you really have to watch."
In recent years, Schneider has given presentations to composting tours in Ohio and shared his insights on safety. He said he hasn’t seen any issues in Ohio like the Community Recycling incident, mostly because composting in Ohio is done during certain months of the year due to inclement weather.
"It sounds like they have some Cal-EPA and some Cal-OSHA issues going on there, not just because two workers were killed, but what kind of materials should they be allowed to bring in and is this use constituting disposal," Schneider said. "This is especially true when dealing with industrial wastewater. You can only do so much from a composting perspective with industrial wastewater, depending on what’s in it."
With confined space requirements, Schneider said, there are OSHA criteria that companies must comply with, such as identifying what is a confined space, making sure that people who enter the confined space are properly trained and equipped, and making sure companies monitor the air before and after entering a confined space.
"If [an employee has] to go in, they use an air pack or something like that and [the company] has to supply that as well," Schneider said. "If they have a contractor come in, then they have to work with the contractor to make sure they’re following all the confined space requirements. And maybe even ventilate the space, which is typically what you want to do."
Some of those precautions may have been overlooked at Community Recycling, according to first responders and others. For instance, before their deaths, the Ramirez’ reportedly complained to family members about strong odors at the facility and that they had been given only painters’ masks to protect them from fumes.
"The old adage is the OSHA regulations are all written in blood," Schneider said. "Basically, the regulation is there because somebody lost a finger, arm, a life or whatever. Confined spaces are very important aspects of that kind of a program, making sure that if you send someone into a confined space, they are protected."