It’s peak season, you’re at the tail end of a 12-hour shift, safety procedures you know you should be following fell out of priority a couple hours ago, and heading back to the truck to grab your safety glasses is just going to put you even further behind schedule than you already are.
We’ve all been there and, fortunately, most of us have come out unscathed. But safety precautions aren’t just there to inconvenience and annoy us; ignore them and you could pay the price. Any journeyman with a little gray in their beard can tell you a story or two about someone they know personally who was maimed on the job … or worse. It’s a dangerous world out there and even the most experienced HVAC techs and installers can get hurt or killed.
When asked about the worst thing that’s ever happened on the job, techs and installers share stories that would make even the most stoic grimace and go a little weak in the knees:
“Skin grafting, over three months in the burn unit” … “Broke 6 bones and cut all the extensor tendons in my left hand.” … “Got tangled up in a ladder and broke both shin bones in four places.” … “Lost my balance and grabbed a flex line filled with sulfuric acid and I got a nice splash in my eye.”
Between the horror stories are plenty of words of advice from seasoned techs, installers and contractors:
“Accidents happen when you get comfortable.” … “Slow down, save your butt.” … “I remember my first Freon burn. I’ve been doing this almost three years now and I will always use heavy gloves when using Freon!” … “Never believe the idiot ‘teaching’ you when he says the power is off…Always check power and still try to treat it likes it’s live.” … “Always respect your work environment.”
Every dangerous line of work has an honor roll. Police who’ve fallen in the line of duty; fishermen who’ve gone overboard in 30-foot swells off the coast of Alaska. The construction trades are no different.
In 2015, the US Department of Labor received reports of more than 37,000 separate accidents resulting in injuries in the HVAC and plumbing trades. That same year there were a total of 29 fatalities, with most falling into three categories:
- Transportation incidents – 7 fatalities in 2015
- Exposure to harmful substances or environments (electricity or inhalation risks) – 9 fatalities in 2015
- Falls, slips, and trips – 11 fatalities in 2015
Still, HVAC is among the safest of the skilled trades. To put it into perspective, consider this: in 2015 there were a total of 4,836 workplace fatalities in all construction trades combined. The electrical, welding, roofing, and carpentry trades are all associated with far more jobsite accidents resulting in death than HVAC.
The fact is every job has its risks and there’s no point in being scared or intimidated. The idea behind looking at some worst-case scenarios of what can happen when things go wrong is to gain a better understanding of what those risks are.
The following cases are real. The names have been withheld to protect the privacy of those maimed or killed.
Technician and Contractor Electrocuted – North Carolina
A tech and contractor were installing ductwork in a home. The tech was working in the home’s crawlspace, installing aluminum straps around the new ductwork to fasten it to the floor joists above. As the tech drilled a hole in the floor joist, the sharp edge of the strap came into contact with wiring that was attached to the same joist, damaging the wire’s insulation. The current from the wire traveled from the drill bit, passing through the technician.
Hearing a noise coming from the crawlspace, the homeowner alerted the contractor who then entered the crawlspace and located his employee. Out of instinct, the contractor grabbed the tech and the current subsequently passed through his body too.
By the time emergency personnel arrived, both men were in cardiac arrest and were later pronounced dead at a local hospital.
Support Frame Collapse – California
In 2013 four installers with Nice and Cool Inc out of Los Angeles were working in an open construction site to install an HVAC unit and ductwork for a new restaurant.
The unique design of the building’s suspended ceiling meant the three men needed to install the system within a non load-bearing, non-structural steel frame that had been set up to support the HVAC unit. The workers used the steel frame to access the install site, which meant the frame would also be supporting the weight of the four men and their tools.
Unaware of the weight capacity of the steel frame, the structure collapsed under the combined weight and the four men went crashing to the floor below in a tangle of steel and tools.
Ambulances rushed the four to the hospital where it was determined the injuries were minor. All four would survive to learn from the painful and embarrassing mistake.
Severed Fingers – Texas
Fox Service Company specializes in residential and commercial HVAC systems. With a company motto that simply states, “We can fix that” the company identifies “safety” as one of the five factors that have lead to its success.
With safety as one of the company’s five pillars and with management placing a major emphasis on proper protocols and regular safety training, no one would’ve expected that one of the company’s employees would suffer a career-ending injury – especially an injury that would require three fingers to be amputated.
It all happened on a service call to diagnose the source of a reported vibration that was coming from within an HVAC unit. It was a bigger unit, and the employee was checking a large blower blade by pulling on the fan belt.
He had taken the necessary precautions to ensure the unit was off. Still, as he hoisted the large blower to access the blade, his hand was caught between the fan belt and the pulley. In an instant, three fingers on his right hand (middle, ring and pinky) were crushed and he was left with a bloody mess where his digits used to be.
He was transported to the hospital where it was determined the three fingers could not be saved and would need to be amputated.
Noxious Gas Exposure – Florida
It started off just like any other day for the United Mechanical, Inc technician dispatched to a service call in early March of 2015. The certified technician was responding to a call about a problem with a boiler unit located in the basement of a hospital, a routine call to a location he was familiar with.
The technician arrived and brought his toolbox and a diagnostic kit down into the basement where he sat face-to-face with the unit. However something wasn’t right.
At first he wasn’t sure if he was imagining the pungent smell in the air. Then it hit him full-on when a blast of steam hit him in the face. He was definitely breathing something poisonous. He wasn’t sure where the noxious gas was coming from, but it soon became clear that it was leaking from a connection unrelated to the boiler located in the same utility room.
Luckily he was able to get out of the room before he lost consciousness. He wasn’t sure how bad he was exposed, and he soon began feeling nauseous as his eyes burned from the exposure. Fortunately he was already at the hospital, where he underwent observation and was later released.
Later, when a HAZMAT crew was called in to take samples they discovered sodium sulfate tetrasodium pyrophosphate and potassium hydroxide, all known noxious gasses that were present in the room.
Electrocution at a Residential Site – South Carolina
The day was August 12, 2013 and D & D Maintenance Services, Inc had just dispatched one of its employees to troubleshoot a residential HVAC unit that was acting up.
When the technician arrived at the scene and began investigating, he made three errors that day that would prove to be fatal:
- He was not standing on a rubber insulating pad
- He was not wearing any gloves or safety glasses
- The energy to the HVAC unit was not isolated
While the technician was examining the unit he came into contact with a capacitor that served as a mini electrical generator for the unit. He touched the capacitor with his left hand while his right hand was touching the side of the metal unit, causing him to be electrocuted. He died instantly at the seen.
The medical examiner later identified an electrical entry burn on his left hand and an exit burn on his right, marking the points where the electricity had entered and then exited his body.
Electrocution at a Commercial Site – New Jersey
An HVAC mechanic was electrocuted while servicing two commercial HVAC units that had been leaking water. Before starting the work, the tech shut down the circuit breaker instead of turning off the power switch mounted on the units. After inspecting the first unit, the tech found that it was wet, so he reenergized the ventilator fan, allowing it to dry.
He then turned to the second unit and found it to be dirty. While standing on a ladder that he set up by the access panel he began to vacuum the loose dirt from the unit. While doing so, he came into contact with the exposed 480-volt heating coils in the rear of the unit. He was electrocuted by the energized coils, which were on a separate fused circuit and not connected to the circuit breaker panels. He died as a result of the electric shock.
OSHA requires techs to identify all circuits they may potentially contact and test to verify that all are de-energized after shutting down the power. The tech in this instance was unaware that the unit had a separate fused power supply and did not ensure that all the electrical circuits were de-energized and tested before working on them.
Deadly Fall – Minnesota
Spring was well underway in May 2013 when an HVAC tech from Shoreline Metal Fabricators, Inc was working at a foundry where he was set to install a new dust collection ventilation system.
While taking measurements on the roof in preparation for the install he crashed through a skylight, falling to his death on the factory floor below. The circumstances surrounding why he was on the skylight are unclear: did he trip and fall through, or did he mistake the skylight for a more stable structure?
An investigation revealed there was a small layer of dust and sand on the roof that may have caused the skylight to appear opaque. There was also a thin plastic dome covering that further obscured the glass of the skylight. Since the roof was dry and relatively free from obstacles, it’s believed that he failed to see the skylight and made the fatal mistake of stepping onto it.
Another Deadly Fall – Georgia
In November 2015, an HVAC installer fell through a skylight while attempting to pull free a saw that was stuck into a metal roof. When he jerked the saw loose from the roof, he lost his balance and fell through a skylight and onto the concrete, 15 feet below. He later died of his injuries.
His employer was later charged with failing to put proper fall protection measures in place.
OHSA standards requires certain precautions for workers on job sites that are more than 6 feet above the ground, which may involve employing covers, harnesses, or guardrail systems.
Compressor Explosion – New York
Since pressurized refrigerant gasses are not combustible, explosions are an almost unheard of workplace hazard in the world of HVAC. But in November of 2010 this is exactly what happened when a freak accident occurred at Hillside Manor Rehab and Extended Care Center in Jamaica Estates.
As the facility’s in-house building engineer was performing a routine leak test by connecting pressurized nitrogen to the HVAC unit located in the engineering room, for reasons that are still unknown the compressor failed and exploded, sending shrapnel flying in all directions.
Two employees sustained severe injuries in the blast and a third was killed when metal debris struck him in the head and neck.