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TRAPPED: Deaths inside freezers can be prevented, but how?

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Associated Press


Trapped in a walk-in hotel freezer with subzero temperatures, Carolyn Robinson Mangham knocked so desperately on the door that the skin on her knuckles had worn away, her husband said in a lawsuit.

When the door finally opened 13 hours later, the coroner said, the 61-year-old kitchen worker was lying on the metal floor, wearing her black shoes and pants, a white cook’s shirt and a black apron. Her head and eyes were frozen solid.

Mangham, who died in March in Atlanta, was among a handful of workers who, in the last 15 years, were found dead in freezers, federal records show. Some were trapped by broken doors and either froze to death or were overcome by lethal fumes.

Experts say the deaths are preventable, but it’s not likely the federal government will draw up any specific regulations dealing with freezers. One reason: They’re more inclined to enforce broad rules for employers, such as making clear exits available.

“This should never happen. It’s tragic, and the families are left with devastation,” said Kim Bartels, whose brother Jay Luther died in a walk-in freezer in 2012.

Luther, a 47-year-old chef and co-owner of a cafe in Nashville, Tennessee, went into his restaurant’s freezer and the door shut behind him. For reasons not explained, there was no release mechanism to open the door, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration concluded in its report. Luther suffocated from breathing carbon dioxide vapors that came off dry ice inside the freezer, a medical examiner found.

“There’s no question that technologies exist — old and new — that could address this issue,” said David Ringholz, chairman of the industrial design department at Iowa State University.

Motion sensors, for instance, could disable doors anytime movement is detected inside a large walk-in freezer, he said. Other experts suggested alarms, a cellphone or even an axe kept inside to help someone get out.

Some safety upgrades would cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, and that expense can be a big obstacle to improvements.

Adam Finkel, a former OSHA regional administrator for the Rocky Mountain states, recalled when a 55-year-old woman died inside a freezer at a lodge in Colorado in 2002.

“That one really struck me as a terrible way to go,” said Finkel, now executive director of the Penn Program on Regulation at the University of Pennsylvania.

There had been problems with the freezer door at the Westin Peachtree Plaza hotel in Atlanta, according to the lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages. Several months before her death, an exit mechanism failed inside the 12-by-10 freezer, and a hotel employee “had to beat on a back wall in order for someone to let her out,” the medical examiner’s report states.

When Mangham died, the medical examiner, OSHA and a representative of an equipment servicing company performed more than 30 tests on the door’s exit device, and it opened properly each time, hotel spokeswoman Sally McDonald said.

However, three weeks later, the exit button malfunctioned during a follow-up inspection, this time trapping two people, who had to beat on the door to alert others outside to free them, the autopsy report states.

OSHA found that the hotel exposed workers to hazards, and levied a fine of more than $12,000 in Mangham’s death. The hotel agreed to frequent and regular inspections of its freezers, including the door-release mechanisms, the agency said.