Todd Keeling, SunTrust Park, and Workplace Safety

It wasn’t so long ago that building things was a pretty dangerous pastime. The most extreme example of this is probably the Panama Canal; over 5,000 people died in its construction. Five people died erecting the Empire State Building. It’s safer now to construct great buildings; such fatalities are significantly rarer than they used to be. But as we learned last week, the risk inherent to the construction and maintenance of any structure, especially large venues like stadia, will never be zero.

Enter SunTrust Park, the brand new, state-of-the-art venue for the first-place Atlanta Braves. The Braves’ surprising season took a tragic turn on June 26, when workers found a dead body inside a beer cooler at SunTrust. The body was later confirmed to be that of Todd Keeling, a 48-year-old inventor most famous for designing and patenting a technology which dispensed beer at several times the conventional rate. Keeling had already installed his technology in Guaranteed Rate Field and Target Field. Ben Brasch of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution described the technology, called “Draftwell taps,” this way:

The Braves said Monday that the new Draftwell taps installed throughout the ballpark cut down pour times from a 14-second average to five seconds.

Delaware North Sportservice, which manages food and beverage service at SunTrust Park, said the new boozy tech will also keep the beer colder and fresher with more “brewery-intended flavor.”

Target Field in Minneapolis, home of the Twins, installed Draftwell taps and increased its keg yield from 87 to 94 percent, said Delaware North spokesman Marc Heintzman.

Although an autopsy was conducted, a cause of death hasn’t been released yet. Thankfully, Reuters indicated that “police have no reason to suspect foul play at this time.” But that still leaves a lot of unanswered questions. From Brasch again:

Fran Kuchta, Keeling’s aunt, said police told the family that he was in the cooler and couldn’t get out.

Keeling’s body was found about 2:30 p.m. inside a walk-in beer cooler behind a concession area in Section 331, according to a Cobb police incident report. Workers pulled Keeling from the cooler and tried to give him CPR.

Cobb police spokeswoman, Officer Sarah O’Hara said the space where Keeling was found doesn’t go below 40 degrees and is large enough to hold pallets of beer.

It’s worth asking how Keeling ended up trapped inside the cooler; the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) is investigating that very question right now. And while it’s not clear what caused Keeling’s death, it was quite possibly not related to temperature at all. Being trapped in a freezer* leads to a limited air supply. In light of all of these hazards, it makes sense that there would be some regulations concerning escape from walk-in freezers. Indeed, according Donesha Aldridge of a local NBC affiliate, OSHA is looking at two different angles: “the reason the beer cooler would not open from the inside, and whether there is any way for someone who is inside to press a call-for-help button.”

*While the space in which Keeling died is technically a cooler, I’ve used the term “freezer” here and throughout as a kind of blanket term for this sort of unit.

Notably, OSHA has looked at this very problem before. Freezer deaths like Keeling’s aren’t new. Back in 2016, the Associated Press examined a spate of deaths caused when freezer doors closed and the interior door releases on those freezers either malfunctioned or were entirely absent.

Experts say the deaths are preventable, but it’s not likely the federal government will draw up any specific regulations dealing with freezers. One reason: They’re more inclined to enforce broad rules for employers, such as making clear exits available.’

***

“There’s no question that technologies exist – old and new – that could address this issue,” said David Ringholz, chairman of the industrial design department at Iowa State University.

Motion sensors, for instance, could disable doors anytime movement is detected inside a large walk-in freezer, he said. Other experts suggested alarms, a cellphone or even an axe kept inside to help someone get out.

Some safety upgrades would cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, and that expense can be a big obstacle to improvements.

As frightening as that AP story is, it’s not entirely true that walk-in freezers are an unregulated wasteland. The Code of Federal Regulations — that is, the big book where rules issued by federal agencies are located — runs over 178,000 pages, so you’d expect there to be some rules on walk-in freezers. One regulation in particular — 29 CFR 1910.37 (that’s Chapter 29, Part 1910, Standard 37 of the Code of Federal Regulations) — requires the availability of exit routes, including in walk-in freezers. And OSHA’s website has multiple pages like this one devoted to walk-in-freezer safety. It’s because of these regulations that OSHA was able to fine a hotel $12,000 in one freezer death detailed in the AP story.

I want to reiterate: we have no evidence here that the Braves, or SunTrust Park, did anything wrong. For all we know, there was an available and working exit to the freezer. But Aldridge’s report does at least raise some questions about the safety of the freezer and whether SunTrust, a brand new ballpark, really was and is fully OSHA-compliant. If it weren’t, it adds yet another layer to the already dubious proposition that is a publicly funded ballpark.





Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and General Counsel at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author's. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.

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TKDC
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TKDC

I really hate the idea of publicly funded stadiums. I mean, I really, really hate them. But if you are trying to tie stadiums being publicly funded to stadiums not meeting OSHA standards or engaging in other negligent behavior, then that is just ridiculous. These two things could not be more different and unrelated. If you have some evidence, or even just a theory, as to why public financing of stadiums would be related to OSHA compliance or the rate of negligence generally, I am all ears.

Chris K
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Chris K

I guess I’m curious what the point of this article is, if we don’t know anything? The Aldridge article says it could have been a heart attack for all we know…

Joser
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Joser

Well, despite being the kind of baseball fan who reads Fangraphs daily, I had not heard about this incident. And now I not only have, I have a basic legal framework to understand the implications if it turns out he was trapped. And if he wasn’t, and it was just something unrelated like a heart-attack, I still have a better understanding of the situation surrounding coolers the next time I hear about somebody trapped in one and unable to get out. Because inevitably that is going to happen again. (And when it does, and the assholes at the bar start spouting off about it, I like being the asshole with a slightly-better informed opinion).

So, thank you Sheryl.