Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Trench Deaths: "90 mph hour in a 15 mph school zone"

Yet another case where a negligent employer gets away with murder -- two murders -- with a small fine.

The families of two workers who were crushed to death in the collapse of a 12 foot deep trench in Reno, Nevada are calling for criminal prosecution of the employer, Jon Winfield. Travis Cruz and coworker Clayton Gregory were killed in the collapse. Nevada state OSHA recently fined the now-closed Western States Equipment and Bobcat Service $49,000 after finding "serious" safety violations. The OSHA trenching standard says that a trench box or some other kind of protection has to be used if the trench is over 5 feet deep.

The families don't think the relatively small fine is enough: Cruz's brother Terry
said Jon Winfield, owner of the Reno company hired by Somersett to dig the ditch, should be prosecuted.

"He was very careless," she said. "I think he should be facing jail time. He caused two people to lose their lives."


Steve and Jo Gregory said criminal charges should be brought against Winfield because a financial penalty alone will not protect others from the safety abuses that are responsible for the end of their son's life.

"I think it is very important that criminal charges be filed against this young man," Steve Gregory said of Winfield.

Gregory said he's met Winfield twice since his son's death, and thinks Winfield was foolish, not malicious, in ignoring the safety issues that preceded the trench's collapse.

"But if this is allowed with only a fine, then the state of Nevada sends a message that it's OK to work in unsafe conditions and all you get is a $50,000 penalty. (Contractors) can make that up in a day."
Unfortunately, because OSHA didn't find any willful violations, Winfield can't be prosecuted under the OSHAct which requires a willful violation that results in a fatality.

But reading the article, I can't understand why Nevada OSHA didn't find a willful violation:
OSHA officials could not be reached to comment on the report, issued June 22 and obtained Tuesday by the Reno Gazette-Journal.

The report said on the day of the accident, Winfield and six employees were working on the project. Winfield's company had a verbal contract with Somersett Development Co. in Reno to install a French drain to "de-water" the area along the fairway of the second hole on the golf course.

The trench at the time of its collapse was 54 feet long and up to 12 feet deep with an average width of 40 inches.

"Mr. Winfield stated that his crew was under pressure from management at the Somersett Development to complete this job as soon as possible," the report states.

Attempts to reach a Somersett representative after working hours were unsuccessful.

"(Two employees) both stated that Mr. Winfield would yell at the employees to hurry up their work," the report noted. "(One employee) stated that Mr. Winfield repeatedly said, 'Move your ass,' to laborers."

According to the OSHA investigation, employees also asked Winfield to remove debris and told him of water seeping into the trench at shoulder height. One employee who asked if the trench would be shored was told it did not need it, the report states.

"(Another employee) stated that he never felt safe in the trench, but did not say anything to Mr. Winfield because he was afraid of being ridiculed or humiliated," the report states.

The report found that "Employees of Western States Equipment and Bobcat Inc., had not been trained in recognition of hazards of the environment they were exposed to. Protective helmets were not required for employees working in the trench and surrounding areas."

The report also found:

  • Water was allowed to accumulate in the trench without proper precautions.

  • The spoils pile was not maintained at the required distance from the trench.

  • No inspections by a competent person were conducted prior to the start of work in the trench.

  • There was not an adequate means of access or egress from the trench. With no ladders of other means of egress, there was no safe or quick method to exit the trench when the collapse occurred.

  • There was no evidence of any protective system for employees working in and around the trench. No shoring or shielding system had been installed in or around the trench.
Gregory's father talked of how the death of his son had altered the lives of his family:
"I saw the hole where he made footprints where they dug him out," he said. "I went through his pockets, which were soaking. That told me the ground in that trench was wet. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know the conditions there weren't safe."

Winfield's employees shouldn't have been allowed to work in a ditch with soil that was more than 5 feet deep and wet, said Gregory, adding that he has 27 year experience in the construction field.

"That's not just fudging a little," he said. "That's doing 90 mph hour in a 15 mph school zone."
Good point. Does anyone think that a person driving 90 miles per hour who kills a couple of kids in a 15 mph school zone would get off with a $50,000 fine?