Feds looking at sewer contractor's safety procedures

Tunnel diameter
This picture shows the relative diameter of a storm tunnel beneath the streets of St. Paul.
Courtesy of St. Paul Public Works

The two men went missing last Thursday while working with six others on a section of the St. Paul sewer system. A sudden rainstorm forced an evacuation. All of the men made it out from 130 feet below ground, except for Yasis and Harlow.

Minnesota's Occupational Safety and Health Administration -- or OSHA -- is investigating how and why the deaths occurred.

OSHA spokesman James Honerman says investigators are talking with people who were on site during the incident, and are looking at emergency evacuation plans for the construction company, Lametti and Sons of Hugo.

"What we will be doing is reviewing their training for these procedures to ensure that they were in place, that there were proper warning systems in place, and also be looking at their other type of plans that are required when working in this type of space, such as a confined space plan, where the employer and employees need to have a plan about how to safely enter a confined space to ensure they don't come across any any hazards when they enter that confined space area," Honerman said.

Crew working
A crew working in a storm tunnel in St. Paul.
Courtesy of St. Paul Public Works

The OSHA investigation is expected to take several weeks.

The work was part of a larger, $4 million sewer restoration job for the city of St. Paul. It required the workers to be between 110 and 130 feet below ground, working within 8- to 12-foot-wide tunnels. Such work requires employees and their companies to be trained in what's called "confined space entry."

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Curtis Chambers, vice president of OSHA Pros out of Dallas, Texas, is an expert on confined space entry training, and has worked for 30 years with OSHA and as a trainer in OSHA rules. Chambers says OSHA standards require workers be harnessed and attached to ropes. He says there must also be an "attendant," a spotter, above ground to monitor the weather. Chambers says the preamble to OSHA's confined space entry rules say that if followed, the procedures will reduce the fatality rate 85 percent.

"The other 15 percent are unknown things," Chambers said. "It doesn't address everything. But it does specifically address what caused these fatalities. So had the company anticipated it and posted somebody to watch for these things, and know that a rainstorm means you need to get out, then it could have very easily been prevented."

National OSHA inspection records turn up nine sewer drownings across the country from 1972 to 2000, the last year for which statistics are readily available. But only one of those drownings occurred because the person was swept away in a rainstorm, as in this case. The other deaths involved falling or succumbing to toxic gases.

The contractor in this case, Lametti and Sons, has had a few OSHA violations, but no record of violations resulting in accident or injury since 1972.

Sewer tunnel
The work was part of a larger, $4 million sewer restoration job for the city of St. Paul. It required the workers to be between 110 and 130 feet below ground, working within 8- to 12-foot-wide tunnels. Such work requires employees and their companies to be trained in what's called "confined space entry."
Courtesy of St. Paul Public Works

Lametti and Sons is a family-owned construction contractor, working primarily in Minnesota. The company has been in business since 1953. The Metropolitan Council calls the company "one of the best underground contractors in the region."

Lametti and Sons has hired Arnold Kraft as its spokesman. Kraft, a 50-year veteran in construction and safety procedures, says Lametti and Sons' safety standards exceed those required by OSHA.

Kraft says the company had three spotters above ground last Thursday, and he says harnesses and ropes were not useful in this case. Instead, the company had a crane and a basket at the entry point to drop the workers down and bring them up from the worksite below ground.

"We had a procedure set up, a warning system," Kraft said. "There were people in Lametti's office that were monitoring, and always have, monitored the weather. Immediately when there was a threat of some inclement weather, the project is notified, Lametti and Sons have an evacuation procedure in place, the workers have been trained on it. They have a safety meeting every Monday morning."

The sudden downpour brought up to two inches of rain in one hour in St. Paul. The Lametti and Sons crew tried to rescue the men themselves. The company did not place an emergency call to 911 until nearly four hours later. Kraft says that was in accordance with the safety plan, which recognizes the crew is in the best position for a quick, successful rescue.

Kraft says he truly believes last week's tragedy could not have been prevented.

"We're going through an investigation the same way OSHA is. Right now, we're just going through the healing process," Kraft said.

Lametti and Sons has set up an educational fund for the family and dependents of David Yasis, of Maplewood who was 23 and recently engaged, and for Joe Harlow, a 34-year-old father of four from Plainview.