Mon | Sep 20, 2021

Workers’ deaths shed light on deep troubles in cesspool industry

Published:Wednesday | September 15, 2021 | 12:10 AMDavid Salmon/Gleaner Writer

The absence of regulatory standards governing the haulage of sewage from septic tanks and pits has cast the cesspool industry as chaotic, with many workers having no equipment to protect themselves and little training to safely engage dangerous...

The absence of regulatory standards governing the haulage of sewage from septic tanks and pits has cast the cesspool industry as chaotic, with many workers having no equipment to protect themselves and little training to safely engage dangerous spaces.

Interviews by The Gleaner with eight cesspool stakeholders across five parishes – St Elizabeth, St Andrew, Kingston, Manchester, and St Thomas – have unveiled deep concerns within the sector, pointing to discretionary practices among both employees and their bosses that have exacerbated the threats of already grave occupational hazards.

That peril was laid bare on September 6 when Kirk Kerr and Joslyn Henry suffocated to death from noxious fumes as they worked in a septic tank at Moneague College in St Ann. Beresford Gordon succumbed to his distress the following day.

Septic tanks are potentially a toxic bomb with high concentrations of carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulphide, and methane, but cesspool owners report that some of their own employees put themselves at risk wearing flimsy handkerchiefs as their only respiratory shield.

Wait times before entry into pits vary widely as well, with some personnel descending into the deep 10 minutes after removing the cover while others mandate a 24-hour window for the dispersal of gases.

Retired professor of supramolecular chemistry at the Mona Campus of The University of the West Indies, Ishenkumba Kahwa, recommends that the companies ensure that their employees wear appropriate personal protection equipment and to mandate the use of a portable gas meter.

“These days, this meter is generally available at relatively little cost … . There are combustible materials like methane that must be measured. If you got a high build-up of methane and there is a spark, the place can blow up,” Kahwa warned in a Gleaner interview.

Kahwa highlighted the need for respirators with cartridges that absorb hydrogen sulphide, which he dubs “the key protection”.

Director of Flex Cesspool Solutions, Courtney Byfield, that his company owns the full range of equipment, including plastic hazmat suits, respirators, as well as a gas meter. But he admits that those protocols are not industry norms.

“The men that are cleaning pits now, they just take off their clothes, open the pit and go down in the septic tank. You have to open it and make it breeze out for all a day before you go into it, especially a tank,” he said.

Kevin Brooks, director of Brooks Cesspool Haulage, shared that when he descends into a pit, he wears a wet suit and respiratory gear that provides an uninterrupted flow of oxygen. His company also runs a duct inside the pit to pump in fresh air.

Brooks said that he maintains a strict regime with employees, not allowing them to spend more than 15-20 minutes in the tank at a time. A lookout worker is positioned at the mouth of the tank to monitor those below.

“Every time somebody goes down, somebody has to be at the top of the hole. He is on a harness with a rope, so in case of anything, you can pull up that harness, so you pull him up with the rope,” Brooks elaborated.

Winston Walsh of Cesspool Solutions General Haulage and Services in St Elizabeth expressed discomfort with entering a pit.

“We draw from outside of the pit. I have never gone into a pit and I have never sent someone into a pit. I don’t like that part of the job,” he said.

Despite not entering pits, his company still takes precautions before removing waste.

“When you open the pit, you don’t look into the pit and you don’t bend over; you just open it and walk away. When you come back, you put your hose in,” he explained.

Additional safeguards, said Walsh, include the wearing of double-filter 3M masks with replaceable cartridges and a transparent face piece that locks in the face.

Joseph Parker from Hibiscus Guest House and Cesspool Specialist is disappointed that there is no independent authority to provide training and to regulate the industry. His knowledge and competence are the culmination of about 30 years of on-the-job training.

But he is calling for the Ministry of Health and Wellness to step in.

“I learned on the job because as far as I am concerned, I don’t know of anywhere to be trained. It would be so good if you could have training,” Parker said.

The Moneague incident is not the first such cesspool tragedy in Jamaica. Almost 16 years to the day, three workers at the Jamaica Public Service Company’s (JPS) Old Harbour power plant in St Catherine died after losing consciousness after inhaling what was believed to be hydrogen sulphide.

“When me and my second went to assist the men who died, I saw my second drop. When I reached down into the hole, I began experiencing short(ness) of breath and my tongue getting heavy. I had to come out back,” Glenford Campbell, one of the workmen, reported at the time.

Kahwa said that the Moneague circumstances mirrored those in Old Harbour.

In 2015, Robert Chung, then senior director for the Occupational Health and Safety Department in the Ministry of Labour, highlighted that in 2007, the National Workplace Condition Index showed that only 58 per cent of worksites achieved optimal working conditions.

Kahwa lamented the foot-dragging of the occupational safety law through the nation’s Parliament.

“If we had the occupational health and safety law, with standards on how workers should treat with potentially hazardous situations, that would help,” the professor said.

david.salmon@gleanerjm.com