We Put Ourselves in Tight Spots to Care for Our System

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At 6’2”, Randy Westendorf fit right in as a linebacker for the University of Colorado football team. Imagine that same man, now a facilities inspector working for King County Wastewater Treatment Division (WTD), squeezed into a 48” wide manhole. That visual (seen above) caught the eye of a coworker, and became a feature in an industry organization’s annual calendar.

What was Randy doing in that manhole, anyway?

Randy works on a facilities inspection team that takes care of 170 instruments that serve as witness to what’s happening in WTD’s complex underground system. Flow meters tell us if storm water is filling our pipes. Along with growth data, they tell us how big to build new facilities. The meters help us plan how we will control combined sewer overflows (CSOs).

Experts in geographic information systems (GIS) and computer modeling use flow data to track how much room for additional wastewater we have. Planners use this information to predict far in advance when we will need to add capacity for our growing region.  Once we start a project to provide more capacity, project teams use flow data to design new and upgraded facilities and figure out what is needed to build them.

These instruments may be important to our business, but nothing is more important than our employees. When Randy lowers into that manhole to check on a flow meter, his coworkers, equipment, and procedures protect his safety. Everyone on the team is required to take safety training and follow safe procedures.

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Area firefighters and WTD participate in hands-on confined space training.

Manholes are considered “confined spaces”. This means they have limited space, can be hard to get in/out of, and can have poor or even dangerous air quality. When entering a manhole is necessary, WTD uses a buddy system to protect crew members. An employee at the surface keeps an eye on traffic control, ensures safety lines and sensor cables don’t get tangled, and makes sure that the crew member is regularly reporting oxygen levels.

This work calls for personal protective equipment (PPE): a hard hat to protect against falling objects, a special suit, latex gloves, safety glasses, and steel toe shoes. The person who enters the manhole wears a harness connected to a power winch,  a mechanical device that can quickly pull the employee out in case of emergency. A gas monitor detects potentially harmful gases and alerts the whole crew. The team keeps in constant communication with in-ear speakers and microphones.

On the day that Randy was squeezing into this manhole, John Gemmill, construction manager, served as his buddy. The striking image of such a tall man curled into such a tight space caught his eye. He reached for his camera and memorialized an image that is both visually striking and a little disorienting.

“Randy looks like an astronaut floating in space,” observed Faon O’Connor, water quality planner.

The resulting photo was submitted to the Pacific Northwest Clean Water Association (PNCWA)  when they issued a call for photos to include in their first annual calendar.

“PNCWA wants their calendar to focus on the great things people do in a clean water utility,” said John Phillips, water quality planner and PNCWA president. “The image of Randy in the manhole was chosen partly for its visual appeal, but very importantly, for the illustration of proper safety procedures.“

King County WTD works hard to maintain a large regional system that works mostly out of sight to protect us, our environment, and our quality of life. Sometimes that means getting up close and personal. When that happens, our primary goal is keeping our employees safe. John Gemmill’s photograph of his coworker inspecting critical equipment in a potentially hazardous space illustrates that goal.

“The job puts you in some tight, tough spaces once in a while,” John Phillips said with a smile, “but they’re doing what needs to be done.”