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Death of workers in sewer both accident and mistake, says manager

Legacy Phuket Gazette



PHUKET: Workplace health and safety officials will investigate the deaths of four sewer maintenance workers who died of asphyxiation in a Phuket Town sewer on Wednesday morning.

“We will start our investigation on Tuesday, when we will interview representatives from the contractor and the municipality to establish precisely what happened,” Yudhakarn Ovasith, chief of the Phuket Provincial Labour Protection and Welfare Office, told the Phuket Gazette yesterday.

“This is a big case. We will need assistance from the regional office in Surat Thani. They have better qualified experts and the right equipment for carrying out the investigation.”

The four workers died after being overpowered by hydrogen sulphide fumes that had built up in a sewer on Si Sena Road, on the east side of town.

The four who died – Thawat and Suchet Chitchollatarn, Sanan Buachoom and Apisit Tipprasong – had been tasked with maintenance of a sewer access point, and they succumbed to the fumes one by one, trying to rescue each other (story here).

“We will launch our investigation as soon as we have received a report for our Phuket office,” said Chaowalit Bunyanukulkit, chief of the Occupational Safety and Health Bureau – Region 11 office in Surat Thani.

“We need to clearly establish what happened, what safety procedures were in place and how future incidents like this can be avoided.

“We will also need to review the contract between the maintenance company and the municipality to see which safety provisions were required according to municipal regulations. However, the municipality and the contractor are both required to comply with Occupational Safety, Health and Environment Act BE 2554.”

Pimook Sornmee, the manager of the contracted maintenance company Eastern Thai Consulting 1992 Co Ltd, on Thursday branded the incident “both an accident and a mistake”.

“The tragic deaths were due to a lethal combination of sweltering heat and stagnant water, ending in the formation and build up of hydrogen sulfide within the confined area of the sewer, and inadequate safety measures,” he admitted.

Maintenance workers check the sewers’ water levels every week and clean them every other week, said Mr Pimook.

During last week’s check, the water level in the sewer was high. The workers plugged the sewage drainpipes with sandbags to prevent water flowing into the sewer so they could come back to clean it out, he explained.

“Phuket has had very hot weather this month. The extreme heat in the pipes combined with the stagnant water to create hydrogen sulfide gas, and the sandbags allowed it to build up in the pipes,” Mr Pimook said.

“Water flowing into the pipes has been very strong and burst the sandbags. This allowed the gas to escape from the pipes and into the sewer.”

The gases built up before the maintenance workers arrived to clean, and the men did not wear masks when they entered the sewer, he added.

“The workers made a mistake by not wearing masks into the sewer, but they could not have known that the sandbags had broken before they arrived to work,” said Mr Pimook.

He pointed out that another maintenance team has now removed the sandbags to allow water to flow and dispel the gas.

Phuket City Mayor Somjai Suwansupana reported to the press on Thursday that one of the four injured rescue workers, Jessada Janpen, remains in the Intensive Care Unit at Vachira Phuket Hospital.

“The other three are doing better and have been transferred to a different unit for recovery,” she said.

In an effort to improve safety for workers, Ms Somjai has requested a meeting with the company to discuss ways to prevent similar accidents in the future.

“We need to put security measures in place to protect workers from accidents like this. We should start by finding a better way to seal pipes instead of using sandbags and by providing protective clothing for workers who may come into contact with toxic fumes,” she said.

Mr Pimook announced that his company would compensate the families of the deceased for their loss and cover the treatment costs for his staff, and the rescue workers, harmed in the incident.

“We are taking into account the economic situations of each family, and how we can take care of them,” he explained.

Each family who lost a loved one will receive 100,000 baht for the funeral arrangements, he said.

The company also applied for accident and life insurance for the families, from which each can receive 400,000 baht.

“We will also pay for the treatment of the rescue workers injured in the accident,” Mr Pimook said.

Mayor Somjai explained to the press that government regulations prohibited Phuket City Municipality from making compensation payments to the victims or their relatives, as the maintenance workers and the rescue workers were not directly employed by the municipality

“However, we will continue to visit the victims in the hospital and help them there as best we can,” she said.

— Irfarn Jamdukor


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