Hydrogen Sulfide Safety
Hydrogen sulfide is an extremely dangerous gas known for its smell which is similar to that of rotten eggs. It is sometimes referred to as sewer gas or swamp gas. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health describes hydrogen sulfide as an acute toxic substance that is the leading cause of sudden death in the workplace.
Hydrogen sulfide occurs naturally as a product of the breakdown by bacteria of organic materials including sewage. It is also present in crude oil, natural gas, and in hot springs. Hydrogen sulfide gas can also be produced as a result of certain industrial processes such as wastewater treatment, and drilling and refining of petroleum and natural gas. Other industries that can produce the gas are paper mills, tanneries, and coke ovens. There is a liquid compressed form of the gas also.
The greatest danger of hydrogen sulfide gas is through inhalation. The gas is absorbed rapidly through the lungs and at high levels can cause chemical asphyxiation, affecting the body’s ability to utilize oxygen and adversely affecting the central nervous system. Although the gas has a strong, unpleasant odor, being continuously exposed to low levels can cause a person to lose his or her ability to smell it because of what is known as olfactory fatigue. High concentrations of the gas can also have this effect, so that relying on one’s sense of smell is not a reliable way to detect it.
Even at low levels of concentration the gas causes irritation of eyes, nose, throat, and throughout the respiratory system. At high concentrations it can cause convulsions, shock, inability to breath, coma, and death, in some cases almost immediately.
Precautions must be taken where hydrogen sulfide is present. These should include testing and monitoring air quality for the presence of, and level of, the gas; providing adequate ventilation if the gas is present; and, if the gas cannot be removed, providing appropriate respiratory protective equipment for a person entering a space where the gas is present. OSHA’s confined space entry standard has specific requirements to follow for identifying and monitoring such toxic gases in confined work spaces. It also is necessary to monitor anyone who works in areas that contain hydrogen sulfide for signs of overexposure.
Recently the former president of Port Arthur Chemical and Environmental Services, LLC (PACES) entered a guilty plea in federal court for violating the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) in allowing employees of his company to be exposed to hydrogen sulfide without protection, resulting in the death of an employee. Not only did he not provide protection from exposure to employees, but he was charged with falsifying transportation documents to conceal the presence of wastewater containing hydrogen sulfide that his company was shipping. These actions led to the death of truck driver Joey Sutter in December of 2008 from exposure to the gas while transporting the wastewater.
The company president, Martin Lawrence Bowman, could receive up to five years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines when sentenced. His corporation is facing a fine of up to $500,000 for each violation.
Numerous governmental agencies were involved in the investigation of the case, including the EPA, the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Texas Environmental Enforcement Task Force, Texas Parks and Wildlife, Houston and Port Arthur Police Departments, OSHA, the District Attorney’s Offices of Travis and Harris counties, the Houston and Port Arthur Fire Departments, and the U.S. Coast Guard.
Not only did this employer fail to create and follow a plan to protect employees from the known exposure to this dangerous substance, but he purposely avoided doing so, choosing profits over the safety and lives of his employees. Employers have a responsibility to ensure the safety and health of their employees. Workers have the right to a safe and healthy workplace.