Diver sucked into dam-pipe: operator settles

View of Lake Oliver Dam (OSHA / Butler Kahn)
View of Lake Oliver Dam (OSHA / Butler Kahn)

An out-of-court settlement has been reached in the case of a US diver who died after having his arm sucked into a high-pressure underwater pipe on a Georgia hydro-electric dam three years ago.

Despite the assurances of the dam operator that everything necessary for the diver’s work had been shut down, a valve had been left open on the pipe.

Alex Reed Paxton, 31, a commercial diver with more than 10 years’ experience, had been checking for suspected damage to a chain at Lake Oliver Dam on 27 October, 2020. 

The opening through which Paxton descended before his arm was sucked into a pipe (OSHA / Butler Kahn)
The opening through which Paxton descended (OSHA / Butler Kahn)
Looking down into the interior of the dam where Paxton dived (OSHA / Butler Kahn)
Looking down into the dam interior (OSHA / Butler Kahn)

The pipe sucked in Paxton’s left arm with a force so great that he was no longer able to inflate his chest from his air supply. He would have fallen unconscious and died of “mechanical asphyxia” within minutes.

The diver’s body could not be released until dam employees had been able to locate and shut off the valve – which took them some 30 minutes.

Camera footage from the Alex Paxton’s helmet

Lake Oliver Dam powers four hydro-electric turbines to regulate the flow of the Chattahoochee River near the city of Columbus. The original report into Paxton’s death by the US Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) had been heavily redacted, because the dam’s owner-operator Georgia Power had claimed the need for confidentiality because of the danger of sabotage to critical infrastructure.

However, when Paxton’s parents decided to bring a civil action against Georgia Power over their son’s death, new evidence emerged as dam employees were questioned by the legal team.

LOTO violation

“Before allowing anyone to dive into the water inside the dam, Georgia Power was supposed to close all the valves so no water was passing through the dam,” stated Jeb Butler of Butler Kahn, the law firm appointed to represent Paxton’s parents. “Georgia Power didn’t do that – instead, Georgia Power left a valve open.”

The operator had admitted violating its own “lockout-tagout” or LOTO procedures, under which “all potential sources of hazardous energy should be closed, locked and tagged out,” said Butler. 

Before the dive, the operator had held a safety meeting at which its staff advised the dive-team that all LOTO procedures had been completed, showing them written documentation to this effect.

“There were two valves in the dive area which, if left open, could create ‘differential pressure’ that could endanger a diver,” stated Butler. These two priming valves allowed lake water to enter a large pipe that fed water into the turbine.

The team had been informed about one of these, a “flapper-type” valve, but the other, a gate-type valve closed with a wheel, had been omitted from the LOTO form (below left). It was found to have been included on LOTO forms since the fatality (below right).

Paxton’s dive supervisor testified that if he had known about the latter valve he would have verified that it was closed before allowing Paxton into the water, and Georgia Power later admitted that it should have disclosed its existence, according to Butler. 

The dive-team had checked Georgia Power’s assurances using a flowmeter in the dive area, but this had indicated that it appeared safe to dive. 

Georgia Power had denied that a diagram showing the gate-type valve had been available, but had been able to find one after Paxton’s death. Butler said that internal documents had revealed Georgia Power’s acknowledgment of serious mistakes made by its employees in connection with Paxton’s death.  

Dr Ross Saxon, a commercial-diving safety expert, testified that Paxton had acted reasonably. Georgia Power had hired one testifying expert who attempted to fault the dive-team for not discovering the second valve before Paxton’s dive, but “not a single expert defended Georgia Power’s actions”, according to Butler.

The parties agreed to attend mediation and, after “multiple days of negotiation”, reached an undisclosed settlement. Full details from Butler Kahn.

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