Confined Spaces

The James Beals Tragedy: The Price of Neglecting Confined Spaces Safety

Date First Published on SafetySmart Compliance: August 22nd, 2012
Topics: Confined Spaces |

Somebody’s going to get killed unless something’s done about the handling of the propylene oxide inside the corn starch reactors. –Safety grievance, Staley corn processing plant, Decatur, IL, filed May 15, 1990

The very afternoon after this grievance was filed, the prediction came true. In a twist of tragic irony, the victim was Jim Beals, the very same worker who penned the grievance!

How Jim Beals Died in a Confined Space

The tragedy began when 54-year-old Beals and co-worker Jerry Sumner, both mechanics, were ordered to make repairs inside a cornstarch processing tank.

“This was a boilermaker’s job,” Mr.  Sumner recounts “that we’d never done before.” But the supervisor reassured them that the vessel was safe and ordered them to go in. And so they did.

The tank was what OSHA defines as a permit confined space. The 2 workers had to “worm their way into” the narrow 12” x 18” opening. The crawl space inside measured 24”. The insides were “slimy.” And the round surface made walking tough.

But the real danger was the one Beals had grieved about earlier that day: the toxic gas propylene oxide (PO).

Less than 15 minutes after entering the tank, Sumner detected a liquid chemical seeping into the tank from an open vent. “Then we started choking and I realized it was PO,” Sumner relates. “We were suffocating and I told Jim I was getting the hell out of there.”

Sumner remembers “going toward the light” and escaping. “I tried going back in for Jim,” he continues, “but my eyes were burning too much.”

After recovering his vision, Sumner strapped on a Scott air pack and tried to go back in. But he couldn’t get through the opening with the pack on. Ironically, the breakdown in the rescue procedure saved his life. “I later found out there was almost no oxygen in the air pack.”

Beals would never make it out of the tank alive. He was overcome by the PO vapors and died of asphyxiation.

This video about the Beals tragedy, includesinterviews with Sumner and other witnesses:

Aftermath: The OSHA $1.6 Million Fine

OSHA fined the Staley plant $1.6 million for 298 (!) serious safety violations. Among the many permit confined spaces violations Staley committed:


Use the INSIDER’s Confined Spaces Compliance Plan to find out about the 14 steps you need to take to protect your own workers and avoid OSHA confined spaces violations, including: