Veteran utility worker details safety protocols for confined spaces after 3 die in Columbia City manhole

Local News

COLUMBIA CITY, Ind. (WANE) — Three men died Tuesday after becoming trapped underground while working on a sewer project in Columbia City.

The men were identified by Whitley County Coroner Randy Dellinger as 48-year-old Jason R. Ball and 21-year-old Bronson Ball, both of Columbia City, and 43-year-old Douglas M. Kramer of Fort Wayne.

Autopsies found the men died of asphyxia due to hypoxic environment (low oxygen conditions) and subsequent drowning, and their deaths were ruled accidental. How could this have been prevented?

WANE 15 reached out to the Utility Workers Union of America and spoke with its president, James Slevin, to learn more about the safety precautions taken when working in convinced spaces. Utility Workers Union of America does not represent the three men killed in Columbia City, and Slevin spoke with WANE 15 about general protocols not specific to the incident in that city. He reiterated that work on confined spaces can sometimes differ on the company, space, and job.

“The value of life is so precious today,” Slevin said. “The job will get done. An employer needs to understand the job will get done and when you have a safe job it gets done in a better way. Organized labor has also pushed for organized training and making sure safety is the top priority.”


Before they ever step foot on a job site, workers are required to complete Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) classes. Training is required on OSHA regulations, including the difference between permanent and non-permanent confined spaces. Also included is training on how to identify a hazardous environment and a manhole rescue.

“We are what we call in the industry you’re your brother’s keeper,” Slevin said. “We look out for one another to make sure we go home to our families.”

Workers also have to be trained on manhole rescue. Once a person is trained, the person will have to retrain and retake classes to get the latest information and techniques. OSHA requires that if a task is not performed regularly, the worker has to be retrained. Because of this, an average worker could be retrained once a year or every two years. Workers are also trained in first aid and CPR.

Entering confine spaces

Before a person enters a confined space, like a manhole, the worker is required by law and OSHA to fill out a job briefing. The briefing includes making notes of hazards around the hole, traffic conditions, uneasy footing, and the environment.

Slevin, who worked as a utility worker for several years before becoming union president, said that as a worker, they are trained to look at the cover of the manhole. Workers will look at the color of the cover, determine if the cover dislodged or is not properly placed, look at the pavement around the hole to see if it has morphed, and check if the cover has an electric charge.

Once the cover is removed, it’s required by law to put a device in the hole called an atmospheric tester. The tester shows the oxygen levels, carbon monoxide, flammable gases, and other hazards in the air. A worker will probe the manhole cover with the tester and then slowly lower the device to show the air quality at different levels.

If the manhole is enclosed, it’s possible the hole has water inside. Slevin says that the water would be more than likely pumped out, and while the water is leaving the area, the atmosphere of the hole would continuously be tested. Most employers also take testers out of the system and re-calibrate them every few months to make sure the testers are still working properly.

As another safety precaution, employees will sometimes put in a ventilation system, like a blower, that would help bring in the fresh air. The blower would typically run for 15 minutes before workers would enter the hole.

Above the confined space, workers would have to set up a barrier or workspace to protect and guard the public and pedestrians. A retrieval device with a harness would also set up so when a person entered the hole, if they needed to get rescued, the device would be able to pull them out. An attendant is required to be near the machine and is required to know first aid, CPR and be able to call for help if needed.

If a confined space had a hazard like flammable gas, workers are required to wear flame retardant clothing, safety goggles, rubber gloves, and a hard hat. A breathing apparatus could also be required if the confined space is permitted.

After the environment is checked and everyone is in place, workers go down into the confined space and work.


The incident that caused three workers to die in Columbia City is still under investigation by the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The investigation can take up to 90 days. At the time of this article, work has stopped on the site.

Columbia City’s Long Term Plan

Picture of the last retention basin going in on South Chauncey Street near downtown Columbia City.

The three men were working on Columbia City’s long term control plan. The plan is a project that will help clean up and reduce the amount of stormwater and sewage that is going into the city’s streams, rivers, and lakes. The project was mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The plan is made up of underground retention basins and in-pipe storage. When the city gets heavy rainfall, those retention basins and the new, larger pipes underground will be able to hold the excess rain until the precipitation is over. This will also help reduce flooding in the streets.

In July, WANE 15 got a tour of the project, as the project was in its final phase. The project is set to be completed in Jan. 2021.

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