Huffing : A Senseless Tragedy

by Don Langston

It was one year ago that my company experienced a tragedy that continues to affect me and my staff deeply: the senseless death of one of our service technicians. Our loss holds lessons for the entire industry.

It all began around 2:30 p.m. on August 13, 2002 when my cell phone rang three times in a row while I was in our monthly Cal-ACCA board meeting off-site. I usually let my calls go into voice mail and retrieve them at a convenient opportunity, but I knew something was wrong. Little did I know what a tragic impact these calls would have on so many people as the afternoon unfolded into a very long night.

Our service dispatcher for San Diego County placed the calls. He told me he couldn’t make contact with one of our technicians, who had been scheduled to service a customer’s restaurant in Carlsbad that morning. All of our vehicles are equipped with location tracking devices, so we knew the technician arrived on site at 8:00 a.m. — and the van hadn’t moved since. The dispatcher had been trying to contact the technician via phone and pager for the last two hours, with no response.

We immediately called the customer and began to ask questions: “When was the last time you saw him? Did you talk to him? Did he seem ill?” What was puzzling was that the technician’s van was parked in front of the customer’s restaurant, in plain view. We wondered: “Could he be asleep in the van? Could he be up on the rooftop hurt, unable to climb down the ladder?”

Our customer offered to investigate. He walked around the van, which was locked, but didn’t see our technician. He went up on the roof; again, no sign of him. What the customer did find was our technician’s tool bag, with several hundred dollars worth of test meters, a cordless drill, and hand tools, in the restaurant kitchen. We all know technicians don’t leave their tools behind. At this point, we grew quite alarmed and knew something was seriously wrong.

I immediately decided to drive down to Carlsbad to investigate personally. My father, our company’s founder, joined me. As we drove we considered various scenarios — none were very pleasant or added up to anything logical. However, nothing prepared us for what we were to find.

Once we arrived, I visually inspected the van. Both the windows in the cab were tightly shut and nothing looked out of place. The van had no rear or side windows, a configuration we choose for security reasons. I opened that driver’s door and looked around the cab. Nothing seemed suspicious. It was almost an afterthought to check out the rear of the van, before preparing to drive the vehicle back to our office. It was here that we found our missing employee.

Our 27-year-old technician was leaning forward, in a kneeling position. A refrigerant hose attached to a new 30-lb. cylinder of HCFC-22 was in his mouth. His face was discolored from the freezing effect the refrigerant has on soft tissue. Upon looking at his face and the contorted position of his body, I knew he was dead. The 911 call brought the police, fire, and paramedics, and then the crime scene and coroner’s investigators.

Over the next several hours my father and I were educated about “huffing,” a term used for the intentional inhaling of refrigerants with the goal of getting high. Over the years we have had a few refrigeration systems that were out of gas with the caps missing, but we chalked it up to kids trying to find a cheap buzz. I never would have thought an EPA-certified technician who had worked for us almost three years would want to intentionally inhale refrigerant.

I began to recall two accidents that occurred over the last few years when he had received refrigerant and welding burns. Both these injuries had been superficial burns to the hands and legs. Our technician dismissed them to faulty refrigerant hoses and old refrigerant access valves that broke suddenly while he was in a hurry to finish his work.

At the time I took his explanations at face value. Looking back, these were potential warning signs of something far more dangerous. The detectives theorized that he was inhaling refrigerant over the last few years and was probably losing consciousness with the refrigerant still flowing from the drum through the hose. The refrigerant was probably burning his skin until he regained consciousness.

As the police documented the accident scene, we learned that huffing-related deaths are not uncommon. This statement from the detectives seemed unbelievable. Our technician, a smart, likable young man who had a bright future ahead of him, had purposely inhaled refrigerant vapor. He ended up losing consciousness, and ultimately suffocated to death in the back of a sealed van. The entire 30 pounds of refrigerant had been emptied into his body and the interior of the van.

After our technician’s body was removed and the coroner’s representative completed the documentation, the police released the van to us. I had the unenviable job of driving it back to our office.

It was an eerie ride back to Orange County. While driving, my emotions went from sadness to anger for a young life that ended so tragically. The whole notion of someone choosing to inhale refrigerant vapor that would damage the lungs, throat, and who knows what else, had me shaking my head in disbelief. “How could we have prevented this?” I asked myself. “What could we have done differently?”

That is why I’ve written this article: to make others in our industry aware of this problem. I hope that this was an isolated incident, but it’s something every owner needs to know about.

Be aware of your refrigerant usage. If you have technicians who are receiving reoccurring refrigerant burns or who are claiming to have been burned with a torch, sit down with them and discuss their accident in detail. Ask them if they have ever heard of huffing. The conversation may be a little uncomfortable, but it will be worth it if a life is saved. n

Don Langston is vice president/general manager of AireRite, Huntington Beach, CA. He can be reached at 714/895-2338, ext. 116., or by e-mail at [email protected]

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