Multiple Fatalities When Cleaning Septic Tank
Today October 7th will be 2 months and a day after the regrettable September 6 incident at Moneague College, which resulted in the deaths of Kirk Kerr 46, Beresford Gordon 46, and Joslyn Henry 56. All were employees of Central Cesspool Ltd and were involved in the cleaning of a septic tank at the college. Initial reports suggest that the men were overcome by “noxious fumes” when they entered a septic tank that they were in the process of cleaning. The reports suggest that one person got into difficulty and a second attempted to rescue him and had problems. A third who attempted to rescue the first two were also overcome by the fumes.
This an uncommon but not a rare event in Jamaica. On June 28, 2009, Donald Gayle 44, perished while cleaning a septic pit in Franklyn Town in Kingston. On September 10, 2005, Arthur Williams, Woodford Brown and Owen Townsend perished in a similar incident at the JPS power plant at Old Harbor Bay. It happens in other countries as well. In India, between December 2010 and December 2020, an estimated 631 persons were killed in incidents involving entry into sewage pipes and septic tanks, with 110 of the deaths occurring in 2019. In Algeria, on March 30, 2021, eight persons (7 prison guards and a prisoner) died after entering a septic tank at a prison in the northeast of the country. On October 6, 2021, in Kenya, two men died while repairing a septic tank in the eastern province.
Tanks are entered for the purposes of cleaning, inspection, and repairs. The hazards associated with entry into septic tanks and lines are well known. The main issue is the potentially dangerous atmosphere which could be caused by either or both oxygen deficiency and or toxic gases. There are also the biological and physical hazards associated with these areas. When these facts are combined with the reality that septic tanks are confined spaces, often dark and with poor visibility and allowing only restricted movement and with a high risk of disorientation, it makes the risk level of septic tank entry extremely high.
How do we reduce the likelihood that a similar incident will take place within the next year and that more persons will die?
1. There must be an immediate thrust to raise the awareness levels of all the stakeholders.
The three men who died in Moneague probably were not fully aware of the hazards of entering a septic tank. Entries to septic tanks must be planned and the various risks assessed. Issues to be considered are at a minimum: (a) determination and continuous monitoring of air quality, (b) appropriate PPE to include full body impervious clothing and supplied air respirators, (c) adequate lighting, (d) presence of an observer. Persons entering should be trained and should have an idiot proof system of communication with the observer. All entry plans must have an emergency procedure and rescue plan.
The lead agency on this should be the Occupational safety and Health Department of the Ministry of Labour and Social Security.
2. The New Way must be scaffolded and enforced by legislation.
The new Jamaica Occupational Safety and Health Act (2017) will enable the regulators to force employers to better organize for operational safety and will provide penalties for unsafe behaviour. Municipal Corporations must be a part of the solution and must ensure that septic tanks are constructed in such a way as to mitigate as best as possible, the hazards of ingress and egress. The Ministry of Health should be involved in the Permitting, Education and Regulation of sewer cleaning and sewer waste disposal companies.
3. Use of Technology to eliminate some aspects of the hazard.
Service providers need to explore technological alternatives to minimize the entry of persons into septic tanks. Options are available for cleaning, inspection, and repair for many of the jobs that are being done by persons inside of septic tanks. For cleaning, an appropriate combination of chemical and hydraulic processes can remove all sludge from a septic tank.
4. Pursuit of Civil claims
Civil claims through the court for breach of the Duty of Care to employees or under Occupiers Liability Act, may also help to change the behavior of stakeholders. The legal issues are complex, and liability and penalties can only be determined by the courts. Some of the issues that could possibly be raised to the Contractor and the College could be:
– Were the workmen trained on pit entry procedures and was an evaluation done as to the effectiveness of the training?
-Was there a risk assessment on the pits at the Moneague College to identify any peculiarities or additional hazards posed by them?
– Were they provided with the appropriate safety equipment to make the entry to the pit safe?
– Were they supervised to ensured that they were following the training guides and wearing the appropriate safety gear?
– Was there an emergency procedure for the job and were arrangements in place for a rapid rescue in case there was an emergency?
– Is there a Facilities Management Plan which addresses maintenance and cleaning of septic tanks on the property?
– When was the last review of this plan?
– What are the Safety Procedures identified in the plan for the cleaning of the septic tanks?
– Were these Safety Procedures communicated to the contractor as a part of the service procurement process?
– Was any attempt made to ascertain that the contractor had the knowledge, skill, and experience to follow the procedures?
– Was there an onsite discussion on job safety with the contractor prior the commencement of the job?
– Was the contractor supervised to ensure that while on the property, that was operating in a safe manner?
– Is there an emergency procedure that covers incidents that may occur with persons who are legitimately doing work for the College, on college property?
Three men have died. The College is still functioning. Cesspool companies are still operating. If nothing changes, we could be setting up ourselves for the same thing to happen in a few years.