In late July 2015 tragedy struck an Iowa hog farm. Gene Opheim and his son, Austin, were repairing a pump when a piece of equipment fell into the farm’s manure pit. Austin went to retrieve the equipment, but was overcome by the pit’s toxic fumes – a mix of hydrogen sulfide, methane, ammonia, carbon dioxide and other hazardous materials. Gene rushed to save his son, carrying Austin on his back and almost reaching the opening before the noxious gases overcame him as well.
Each man, father and son, died that day. County Sheriff Lynn Shultes described the pair to be as close as glue. Gene’s obituary noted that he loved riding his motorcycle and always carried a tape measure, pliers, and a pocket knife with him. Austin’s obituary noted that he married his kindergarten crush and left behind two children.
Austin and Gene were the second father and son duo in the Midwest that month to die of poisonous manure pit gases.
When mature decomposes, it creates deadly gases, the most lethal of which is hydrogen sulfide. Workers are most at risk when working in confined spaces, like pump pit areas. Manure pits become even more dangerous when the mature is disturbed, releasing hydrogen sulfide gases.
Daniel Andersen, a water quality and manure management professor at Iowa State University, notes that it takes just a few seconds for routine maintenance work to turn deadly.
“When something breaks the surface of the manure or if the person is in the manure, moving around, that causes more hydrogen sulfide to come out of the manure,” Anderson said.
Protecting Against Hydrogen Sulfide Exposure
Tragedies like the untimely deaths of Iowa farmers Gene and Austin leave us wondering, “What could have been done differently? How could these deaths have been avoided?”
While we can’t control all accidents from occurring, there are several ways to protect against exposure to deadly gases like hydrogen sulfide. One is by using engineering controls such as ventilation systems, which remove gas from work spaces.
Administrative controls are rules put in place to prevent accidents, like protocols for entering, exiting and working in spaces where hydrogen sulfide is present. Safety training and gas level testing are examples of administration controls.
Another way to help prevent exposure to gases is to use personal protective equipment (PPE). PPE for hydrogen sulfide includes full-face air purifying respirators (APR) for gas amounts up to 100 ppm, and self-contained breathing apparatuses (SCBA) or supplied air lines for gas amounts reaching 100 ppm or higher. If direct skin contact with hydrogen sulfide is possible, workers must wear protective gloves and clothing made from material that cannot be permeated or degraded by the hydrogen sulfide.
Emergency Response to Exposure
If you do happen to come into contact with dangerous gases, immediately follow these steps:
Mild Inhalation Exposure
- Get to fresh air
- Call 911 or Poison Control
Severe Inhalation Exposure Causing Collapse
- Call 911
- Before helping hurt person, protect yourself by using non-entry procedures if possible, or by wearing respiratory protection before entering hazardous space
- Get the victim to fresh air
- Begin CPR if trained
- Remove contact lenses
- Wash eyes with water for 15 minutes, lifting the eyelids
- Seek immediate medical attention
- Wash skin immediately
- Soak contaminated clothes and shoes before removing them; wash skin below
- Seek immediate medical attention
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