Saturday, November 15, 2003

"Definitely, it could have been prevented"

The only thing that makes me madder than fatal trench collapses are fatal confined space incidents, especially where, as in this case, one of the fatalities was the attempted rescuer.

This was your classic confined space tragedy where one worker goes down into a sewer line without any monitoring or compliance with OSHA's confined space standard. He passes out from hydrogen sufide exposure or oxygen deficiency and is swept down the sewer. A second goes in to rescue him. He also dies. A third worker when down to rescue them. He luckily survived.

Killed at the site were Francisco Hernandez, 24, and Javier Cruz, 22. They were employees of L&B Vector Service. They had been hired by Houston-based Jimerson Underground, which was repairing sewer lines for the city of Edinburg, Texas.

The one redeeming aspect of this article -- especially compared with the article below -- was the fact that Edinburg Fire Chief Shawn Snider was not shy about stating that "Definitely, it could have been prevented ... there is no excuse for not providing safety equipment for protecting your workers."

According to Jose E. Cruz, the accident victim's older brother
"They did not have the proper equipment....They have people working for the city or this utility company and they had no face masks, no goggles, no gloves, and in the case of an emergency, no hooks to get you out. Nothing for the safety of the employees. It was negligence."

Cruz said his younger brother was married with two young daughters, and his wife is expecting a third child.

"I don't see how a company, especially with a worker with two kids and a baby on the way, would let them work in conditions like that -- without protective suits and with toxic wastes," Cruz said.
One more interesting item. Both of these workers and the construction worker killed in the trench collapse that I wrote about below were working for companies contracting for municipalities. There are several ironies here. Both cities are in states that have no OSHA coverage for public employees, which means that had these employees been working for the cities, there would have been no OSHA investigation or citation because these workers would have had no right to a safe workplace.

On the other hand, being public employees, it is much more likely (at least in Ohio) that these workers were organized and therefore had much better access to information about safety hazards and some ability to take collective action to prevent these tragedies.

Although, we had plenty of confined space and trenching fatalities among our members when I was at AFSCME. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to study whether contractors for public entities have a higher injury and death rate than public employees doing similar jobs. We've clearly seen a trend, for example, in chemical plants and petroleum refineries and other industries. More and more of the most hazardous jobs are being contracted out, often to companies who pay less, provide fewer benefits, and little if any safety or health protections.