Working with explosive gases, sulphuric acid, asbestos and working at heights, 14 metres down a sewage well, that has one million litres of raw sewage pumped through it a day. This doesn’t sound like any other day at work, and I believe it wasn’t, however it was one of the most rewarding days at work we had had for a long time, and it is how we won a Master Builders Queensland Gold Coast Region Excellence in Workplace Health & Safety 2020, and this is the story.
It started just like any other job. We had a call at the office to ask if we would quote a project to remove some asbestos pipes from a pump station. We had no idea we were in for a 3 month saga that would end 18 months later in an award for Excellence in Workplace Health and Safety! It is not the biggest job we have ever done but it is by far the most complex job we have ever done.
Stick with me while I try to paint a picture for you.
The scope was to remove 60 metres of asbestos vent pipe that was four hundred and fifty millimetres wide and weighed twenty five kilograms a metre in total, fifteen hundred kilos from an underground sewage well, fourteen metres underground without contaminating the facility with asbestos fibres and allowing twenty four hours a day, seven days a week access for Gold Coast Council maintenance staff, just in case the pumps failed and sewage filled the streets.
The High-risk activities we had to manage were Friable and Non-Friable asbestos, work at heights, rope access work, work in confined spaces, working with explosive gases and working with acids. We were confident we had put the right team together and with months of meticulous planning, specialist training and purchasing specialty equipment, we were good to go!
The pump station itself was just a small non-descript brick building from the street. A building most people just walked past and gave no thought until the Deodoriser failed and there was a sour smell of sewage in the air. Inside the front door was like Dr Who’s Tardis. The steel gantry flooring covered the fourteen-meter-deep sewer well. The place was huge and it had a huge problem we were tasked with repairing.
The big day had come and stage one of the job was the smallest and highest risk. All we had to do was remove one metre of pipe, simple. That ‘simple’ one metre of pipe went from inside the wet well straight into the old Deodoriser ‘simple’. That one metre of pipe was the subject of so many meetings and discussions I could do it in my sleep. We assembled the team- the mood on site that day was tense and we had 5 representatives from Gold Coast Council on site scrutinising our every move.
There were two teams – the A class guys who were to build an enclosure to remove the pipe because it was deemed friable and the rescue team that were there on standby if the first team got in any trouble or needed anything during setup. Both teams assembled all their equipment and tools. We had been supplied with a “pipe blocker” that was going to be used to stop deadly explosive Hydrogen Sulphide gas from entering the workplace and no asbestos pipe was dropped into the well blocking the pumps and causing the streets to fill with sewage once the first section of pipe we removed, so that work could continue.
As soon as I opened the case on the “pipe blocker” I knew it wasn’t going to work. My heart sunk. The pipe blocker had been supplied by engineers that guaranteed it was the only tool for the job but as it turns out it was the only one, they could think of and it was no good. We had ten people onsite all eager for this job to be finished. The air was so tense you could cut it with a knife and I had no option other than to put my hand up and let everybody know we were going to be delayed until we had a resolution. I have always considered myself a big game player and when things got tough, I always had the ability to focus and get through. Today I would call on all of my experience and ingenuity. Today was game day and there was not going to be a reschedule if I had anything to do with it. The Council delegate and I were very clear, we were not proceeding unless we could work safe. This was not negotiable, the clock was ticking and the pressure was on.
I have no idea where I got the idea from, but it looks like twenty-five years in the building industry, a vivid imagination and a few series of MacGyver had paid off. The solution was two meters of poly pipe, a hand pump, an irrigation connector barb, some netting, and a yoga ball or what we called a pneumatic pipe baffle. First, I had to sell the idea to the council delegate, then source the materials and build and test it in one hour. No pressure!
It was one of the most stressful and challenging shopping trips ever. The first shop I tried had run out of yoga balls and it took three other stops to get all the gear and a few spares just in case. We went through the assembly and testing onsite and just before we started I was handed a two hundred and fifty thousand dollar disclaimer to sign giving them permission to get the liquid waste trucks here if the pumps were damaged, to stop sewage from flowing into the streets. No pressure!
To set the scene, we harnessed up and attached a life-line, explosive gas detector and fitted the breathing apparatus connected to air tanks to the removal technicians. They lowered the yoga ball down the pipe filled it with air, crimped the hose then pulled on the netting pulling the yoga ball tight against the open end of the pipe in the raw sewage well blocking off the gases and creating a seal then tied it off. There were a few tense seconds when the alarm went off on the air bottles to indicate they were getting low. At first people thought it was the explosive gas monitor and the rescue team was getting ready to retrieve the asbestos removal crew but I knew it was the wrong alarm and calmly turned to the council head of safety and asked “is that one of yours?” He replied “No, is that one of yours?” You could have cut the air with a knife. It was the Friday before Father’s Day. I looked at the council delegates and announced “I’ve got this nobody’s Father’s Day weekend is going to be ruined.”
The yoga ball performed brilliantly. It was perfect for the job and everybody went home safe and sound. I didn’t have to spend twenty-five thousand on sewage pumping and the one metre of pipe was safely removed. We won the award for an innovation in safety because we had created a totally new process and invented a totally new product. We had no idea when we entered the awards that our, on the fly MacGyver yoga ball inspired pneumatic pipe baffle was a winning idea. All we wanted was to keep people safe.
The rest of the job went without a hitch. We employed a few rope access technicians to hang from the ceiling and lower themselves down the well and resize the pipe into two-meter sections which we winched up and disposed of and the roof sections were resized and lowered down for transport.