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So We All Go Home Safe – Work-life Lessons

- August 6, 2018 by Guest Bloggers (View all posts by Guest)

A good safety program identifies hazards in a task or process and then establishes proper control procedures. It’s assumed that if workers follow those procedures, the risks will be controlled, and everyone will go home safe at the end of the day. But how often do our procedures account for upsets? For those “what if that happens” situations.

Early in my career, I came face-to-face with the tragedy of what can happen when someone relies on the safety of “The Procedure” after an upset condition occurs. The event changed those of us involved, forever.

Dave was an experienced heavy equipment operator on the tank extraction team who often had to find creative ways to solve routine problems to keep the project on schedule. And so far, the team had done just that. Quickly locating, digging out and hauling away each old fuel tank along the railroad line.

But now, in the middle of the Wyoming prairie, the team uncovered a new problem. No one had mentioned the water line that was hidden underground, adjacent to the tank. So, it came as a surprise to Dave, when – with the tank almost completely excavated – he lowered his backhoe bucket to scoop up the last load of earth, and pulled up a gushing water pipe. The excavation around the tank quickly filled with water, and the tank (which was nearly empty) bobbed to the surface. Because of the weight of the topside piping, the tank then flipped upside-down.

Once the water was shut off and drained, the tank lay upside down in the mud. Unfortunately, the fittings that Dave would normally attach to his backhoe bucket to were now under the tank in the mud. This is where Dave got creative, deciding to use his torch to weld an eye bolt to the drain plug on the bottom of the tank.

“Wait!” you’re probably saying. “That tank had flammable vapors from years of holding fuel”. You’re right, of course. And that’s why, up to this point, the crew had followed proper procedures to identify the tank, open the fill cap, and add a copious amount of dry ice before commencing to dig.

CO2 generated by the dry ice is used to purge all the oxygen-rich air to the outside atmosphere. The crew had used their gas meter before digging, and the readings had shown the tank to be inert (oxygen free). As it sat there, resting upside-down in the mud, there was no reason to believe anything had changed; but, it had. The team just didn’t know it.

Assuming the tank atmosphere was still inert, Dave got busy. He pulled the drain plug from the tank and ignited his torch. It took about five seconds for the intense torch flame to get sucked into the tank through the small opening. The tank began to vibrate and swell, and Dave had just enough time to look over at the supervisor standing in the staging area and say “Oh no!” before the tank violently exploded, killing him instantly.  His body was later recovered about 40 yards away, across the project site.

Dave was a good, warm-hearted man who was easy to like. He left behind a loving wife, and two small children that never got a chance to know their dad.  All because of an assumption.