You must understand. I’m not telling you to be terrified of sewer gas. Sewer gas will not steal your spoons. Sewer gas will not change the channel during a Hail Mary play in the playoffs. Sewer gas will not go shoe shopping and max out your credit card. Sewer gas won’t forget to water your plants. Sewer gas is like a lot of topics in construction and maintenance. Sewer gas should be understood, and its relative danger respected. Fear is not the same as knowledge and respect.
Knowledge coupled with respect is not au courant in today’s world. If you watch any “home improvement” show, there is only one constant. Everyone wears safety glasses all the time no matter how trivial the dangers involved. I have seen people put on safety glasses to hang drapes. If you truly understand risk, and respect danger in proportion to that risk, you are using judgment. If you do not understand risk, but are simply afraid of everything, you wear safety glasses all the time. An overwhelming fear of putting your eye out trumps any rational assessment of the behavior you should undertake to avoid it. You’d be smarter to examine your neurotic urge to achieve an illusory feeling of safety while ignoring really dangerous things.
Safety glasses are the clown shoes of fear. I have seen all the shelter shows — once — and I have observed a noticeably pregnant woman put on safety glasses in order to undertake the demolition of perfectly good tile in her tract home bathroom. It’s not unwise to wear safety glasses if you’re determined to strike ceramic tile with a sledgehammer. It’s just really dumb to think that striking ceramic tile with a sledgehammer is how demolition is accomplished. The pregnant woman was wearing flip flops in order to display her painted toenails to the public. People who understand risk and respect the process they’ve undertaken do not perform demolition in open-toed shoes while pregnant. Believing that wearing safety glasses under those circumstances bestows safety is magical, cargo cult thinking. Magical thinking doesn’t result in safety, ever. It results in paranoia with recklessness ladled all over it.
I am not terrified of sewer gas. I am aware of what it is capable of, and I’m on the lookout for it in situations where it might be present. In the right concentrations, it is instantly lethal. If you’re of the Internet generation, and accustomed to the term “literally” being used in place of the word “figuratively”, look up the word “instantly.” You need to understand that I’m not exaggerating. One breath and you’re overcome and dead an instant later. Sewer gas sounds like a general term for the unpleasant smell in the sewer, which could be all sorts of things like methane that aren’t Chanel No.5, exactly, but can be managed. True “sewer gas” is hydrogen sulfide. It’s one of the scariest airborne chemicals you”re likely to encounter unless you mop the floors in a North Korean chemical weapons shed for a living.
If you’re curious about how dangerous hydrogen sulfide can be, you can Google “Two men dead from sewer gas.” Don’t bother searching for “one man dead from sewer gas.” It’s always two men dead. The first man goes in the hole, and lasts maybe five seconds. The second man goes in to get him. Both are probably wearing safety glasses, because safety.
Hydrogen sulfide (H2S), the toxic gas associated with the smell of
“rotten eggs,” is an important cause of work-related sudden death. The
gas is particularly insidious due to the unpredictability of its
presence and concentration and its neurotoxicity at relatively low
concentrations, causing olfactory nerve paralysis and loss of the
warning odor. We report a double fatality involving 2 surveyors working
near a man-hole, who fell into the sewer and died due to sudden exposure
to hydrogen sulfide gas. Key historical, physical, and toxicologic
findings are described. Additionally, we present a discussion of the
clinical presentations and differential diagnosis, mechanism of injury,
metabolism and toxicology, incidence, and scene and safety concerns in
fatal hydrogen sulfide exposures.
Confined space entry training dwells on sewer gas a lot. Sewer gas is the chemical equivalent of both barrels to the forehead, so it’s worth the attention. There is a long laundry list of things you need to be aware of, and equipment you need to have on hand to deal with potential sewer gas exposure. The first man is required to enter the confined space wearing a harness which is attached to a winch on a tripod placed over the hole. If he’s incapacitated, the second man yanks him out without doubling down on the problem by jumping in after him. This never happens. The first man goes in without any equipment, and the second man dives in after him and dies on top of him.
Here in Maine, it happened a year or two ago. OSHA prosecuted the owner of a business that lost two men in a sewer because of sewer gas. OSHA didn’t care that the company had trained the men for confined space entry. OSHA didn’t care that the company had supplied the men with all the equipment necessary to do the job safely. The workers left all the equipment in the truck and went in the hole and died, even though they must have known the risk. OSHA prosecutes the business because it’s easier than speaking ill of the dead.
I have a long experience with exactly the type of person who ends up dead in a sewer. Without knowing any particulars of the case, I can tell you that no workman will use any safety device of any kind that interferes with smoking cigarettes — and they all smoke. You can train them and yell at them and equip them to a fare-thee-well, but the moment they’re out of your sight, they’ll do exactly as they please. Texting while driving is the poindexter version of this phenomenon.
My house had a malfunctioning sewer line. The malfunction was still of unknown provenance. Unknown unknowns, as an erstwhile SecDef once observed, are harder to assess than known unknowns. My son is standing at my elbow in an unventilated, mostly underground room that stands a small chance of filling up with a lethal gas. You’re damn right I’m going to cap that pipe, right now, and I won’t be worrying about finding safety glasses to do it, either.
[to be continued]