First Person: A Tragic Encounter with H2S

I have been a welder, fitter, and millwright my entire life, working twenty years. I had worked on the road with heavy industrial companies for ten years, everything from nuclear plants to shipyards and various companies in between.

In May of 2001, I took a job close to home at a paper mill company. I had never worked in a paper plant before this. I did not know the danger I was headed for until it was too late. What I mean is, when you're told by the contractor and the plant managers that you are safe and have nothing to worry about, even when you question it, you assume the working area will be all right.

I was hired to do overlay on the inside of a digester (small batch). We (myself and two others) had been doing overlay in the first nine of eleven digesters. While doing the overlay, we complained about the smoke from the stainless welding rods. We were told, "You welders should be used to smoke." We asked for respirators, fans, or anything to clear the smoke out. We were given dust masks and, as always, told that we would be fine because "There is nothing in this plant that will harm you." Then came number ten.

In the afternoon, we received word to cut out the white liquor feed nozzle with the carbon arc. The feed nozzle was a 12-inch pipe with a wall thickness of 1 1/2 - 2 inches thick. I was the one elected to cut the nozzle out because neither of my co-workers could carbon arc. At the bottom of the digester they had installed a blower fan that did not work. (It was only for looks if OSHA was in the plant.) I was given a square box fan. The fan didn't work, but the light on it did. We had asked the contractor and the plant foreman for MSDS sheets and were told, "There is nothing harmful to see in the plant."

At this time, I want to tell you that the rotten egg smell from paper plants is hydrogen sulfide gas at 40 ppm or less.

I started arc gouging the pipe with the 600 amp welder turned all the way up to the max. As I was cutting, a super-sweet, super-strong odor overcame me. It was so sweet, like a cotton candy factory. Then I could not smell a thing. My olfactory glands went numb. I lifted the shield on my welding helmet to change arc gouge rods, and I became lightheaded. My chest felt as if a boa constrictor snake was around me, squeezing me. I could barely breathe. I tried to yell to the hole watchman, but my voice was gone. My larnyx, trachea, and lungs were burned. I shook the rope and scaffold to get the hole watchman's attention. As he looked down at me, he held up his finger for me to wait because he was on his cell phone.

I was so mad because I was going to die. I had collapsed to my hands and knees. I was suffocating, but before I took my last breath, I asked God, "Please forgive all of my sins" because I was on my way out and I wanted to get into heaven. After I prayed, all I saw was black.

Twenty to forty minutes later, I was retrieved from the digester. My skin had turned green and my mind was scrambled. I couldn't remember my name for 30 minutes. No one would take me to the ER. The company men drove me back to the shop, dropped me off, and told me which truck was mine. I got in my truck and sat there for around an hour trying to remember my way home. From that day on, I have had many doctors visits and taken multiple medications.

After we left, the paper company checked the air inside the digester and found no oxygen. The digester kept smoking green smoke for 24 hours. Black liquor was still in the pipe. When the heat from the cutting torch hit the liquid, it became hydrogen sulfide gas. The sweet smell was hydrogen sulfide gas at 300-500 ppm. OSHA was called, and when they got there to check everything, the company had lost the confined space entry log sheet for that day and couldn't find the air monitoring worksheets for that day, either.

To this day, I have white spots all over my skin from capillaries that burst from lack of oxygen. I have RADS, reactive airway disease, which is like asthma. I have Toxic Encephalothapy, which means brain damage from a toxic exposure. The company's employees' gross incompetence cost me my normal life, my livelihood, and my marriage. All I can say is, trust your gut feelings and no one else. I am now a disabled American on way too many prescription meds just to function from day to day.

Good luck to everyone who reads this, and be careful. God bless.

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