MUNICIPAL EMPLOYEES OVERCOME BY MANHOLE FUMES Two die in sewer
A dreadful accident that claimed the lives of two municipal employees in Graaff-reinet on Thursday afternoon, 22 November, is being investigated to determine if all safety procedures where followed.
The men died when a team of six, under the supervision of an experienced plumber, went to fix a dysfunctional sewage pump near Van der Byl Street in the industrial area, shortly after 15:00.
Obviously an unpleasant task, the men get paid a bonus of R1 500 every time they have to enter the sewage manhole, which is usually once a month, and the task normally takes less than an hour.
According to a witness who prefers to remain anonymous, everything seemed normal on the day. The first employee to enter the pit was Seun Scholtz, who took with him a bucket to clear the sewage so that the workers could get access to the faulty pump.
When he had not returned in the expected time, Ashwell Japhta realised something must be wrong, and jumped inside to rescue Scholtz - in vain, as neither man survived.
It appears that both men inhaled the humid hot gasses inside the manhole, and received what is thought to be chemical burns. The Advertiser was told that the entire town's human and industrial waste goes through that particular manhole.
Once the remaining members of the team realised that disaster had befallen their colleagues, none were willing to enter the manhole, and several hours passed before emergency services were able to recover the bodies of Japhta and Scholtz.
The four employees who survived the ordeal received trauma counselling and were booked off at work for a day. According to a friend, the supervisor has also been severely traumatised by the tragedy and has been fiercely defensive of his team when rumours started that the deceased workers had been drunk, which he vehemently denies. It has been alleged that the men in the team had no protective clothing or masks as a safety precaution against the gasses and chemicals in the pit.
Local labour law practitioner Amos Mcinga told the Advertiser that according to the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1993, the employer is required to bring about and maintain, as far as reasonably practicable, a work environment that is safe and without risk to the health of the workers.
“If the allegations concerning the lack of protective clothing and masks are true, then it would seem that the municipality has failed dismally in this regard,” said Mcinga. “Employees should not be sent into risky and dangerous situations without health and safety considerations.”
The Department of Labour conducted a preliminary investigation on Friday, the day after the accident, and will be holding an official inquiry. Ashwell Japhta was 41 years of age, married, with three children under the age of 21. Seun Scholtz, 29, also leaves young children to grow up without a father.
In a release issued by the municipality's acting communications officer, Wilca Smith, it was stated that the municipality is saddened by the two employees’ death.
“The accident is currently being investigated and upon completion, the municipality will issue a statement,” said Smith.
“As colleagues of the deceased who unexpectedly passed away, we are distressed and disconcerted in the company as we are still coming to terms with the loss. Our most sincere commiserations to the families and friends of both the deceased.”
Speaking on behalf of the local Democratic Alliance caucus, Cllr Samantha Graham said the DA is deeply saddened concerning the deaths, and wishes to express its condolences to the families and loved ones of the men.
“We trust that a thorough investigation will be conducted into the circumstances that led to this tragedy, and should there be any evidence of malfeasance on the part of the Municipality, this will be addressed appropriately,” said Graham.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the family through this sad time."
The mayor’s office was also approached for comment, but no response had been received at the time of going to press.
There will be a memorial service on Friday, 30 November, for both men. It will be held in the Alex Laing Hall in Kroonvale at 12:00. The families of the deceased will announce funeral arrangements at the service.
Seun Scholtz (29). The sewage manhole in which Seun Scholtz and Ashwell Japhta lost their lives last week.
Ashwell Japhta (41).