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.

Download Center

  • Industrial Premium Library

    Empower your workforce with the manufacturing, industrial maintenance, operations, HSE, compliance, and professional development skills they need to complete their tasks efficiently and safely. Not only will you boost productivity, reliability, skills, and morale but you’ll also onboard faster, and retain your best employees while meeting regulatory standards. Vector Solutions offers over 1,800 award-winning eLearning courses designed to keep your employees safe, transfer knowledge of fundamentals, and develop industry and job-specific skills that reduce downtime, maintenance costs and more.

  • Safety Metrics & Insights Webinar

    EHS professionals have been tackling the subject of how to best measure performance for many years. Lagging indicators like the Total Recordable Incident Rate (TRIR) and Days Away Restricted Transfer Rate (DART) are a good place to start, but you shouldn’t forget about the leading indicators that your workforce does every day to prevent incidents from occurring. Learn about some of the most common KPIs of safety programs and how Vector EHS Management software can be used to track these metrics in this webinar.

  • Risk Matrix Guide

    Understanding the components of a risk matrix will allow you and your organization to manage risk effectively. Download this guide for details on risk matrix calculations including severity, probability, and risk assessment.

  • OSHA Recordkeeping Guide

    In case you missed it, OSHA recently initiated an enforcement program to identify employers who fail to electronically submit Form 300A recordkeeping data to the agency. When it comes to OSHA recordkeeping, there are always questions regarding the requirements and ins and outs. This guide is here to help! We’ll explain reporting, recording, and online reporting requirements in detail.

  • Safety Metrics Guide

    Is your company leveraging its safety data and analytics to maintain a safe workplace? With so much data available, where do you start? This downloadable guide will give you insight on helpful key performance indicators (KPIs) you should track for your safety program

  • Vector Solutions

Featured Whitepaper

OH&S Digital Edition

  • OHS Magazine Digital Edition - September 2022

    September 2022

    Featuring:

    • ESG
      EHS Will Guide Future ESG Success for Many Organizations
    • MACHINE GUARDING
      Handling Material Handlers: Training Beyond PIT Requirements
    • EHS SOFTWARE
      The Missing Link with EHS Software
    • HEARING PROTECTION
      Noise Surveys from the Trenches
    View This Issue