Saturday, December 20, 2003

Second Violation Follows Trenching Fatality: What Does It Take?

I'm starting to think that Congress should pass a law: kill someone in an unprotected trench, the boss goes to jail. Automatic.

First this. A Rhode Island plumbing contractor, Greenwood Plumbing, Heating and Solar, Inc., also known as Mr. Rooter, was just cited for $140,000 by OSHA because employees were working in an unprotected 8-foot deep trench less than a year after the company received an $89,000 OSHA citation for killing an employee, Walter Gorski, in an unprotected 11 foot deep trench. Any trench over 5 feet deep must be protected by shoring or a trench box according to OSHA regulations.

"It's amazing," said Kim Corrente or Warwick, Gorski's sister. "You learn from your mistakes. There should not have been a second incident after someone's death."

Gorski's family, who learned after the tragedy that the company had not been following safety rules, is hoping for a criminal prosecution.
After he died, Gorski's widow, Kyleen, gave birth to his daughter, Emily, who is now 7 months old, Corrente said. Gorski's family, which includes three sisters and a brother, have been on a "roller coaster" of emotions while waiting to see whether there will be criminal charges brought against the owner of the company, Donald Lapierre, Corrente said.

Detective Lt. Luke Gallant, spokesman for the Woonsocket Police Department, said detectives recently presented their findings in a criminal investigation surrounding Gorski's death to the office of Attorney General Patrick Lynch. But Gallant said he is not optimistic that state prosecutors are going to recommend the case for presentation to a grand jury. Michael Healey, a spokesman for the attorney general, said prosecutors are "carefully reviewing" the case but haven't made a decision yet.
Doing everything correctly?

Meanwhile, in Florida A 20-year-old construction worker, James Randal Helton, was killed early last Wednesday morning when he was buried in a 16-foot deep trench that collapsed on top of him.

"A pile of dirt that had been placed outside the trench fell, burying Helton in the hole, authorities said."

OSHA reported that since October of last year, there have been seven trench deaths in north Georgia. During the previous 12 months, there were none. Breezley explained the economy played a role in the disparity.

“Because the economy’s looking good, then they build more and they dig more,” he said.

Employed by EKK Grading & Development, Helton was part of an eight-man crew installing a 10-inch sewer line.

"It was tragic accident and I hate it and everybody, all of us, are very upset," said the company's owner, Jared Bailey.

Bailey said his crews were doing everything correctly, as far as safety precautions were concerned.

I don't think so. This tragedy was similar to a trench collapse in Zanesville, OH last month where the office manager claimed that "nothing could have prevented it."

As in Zanesville, overlooked was OSHA standard 1926.651(j)(2) which states
Employees shall be protected from excavated or other materials or equipment that could pose a hazard by falling or rolling into excavations. Protection shall be provided by placing and keeping such materials or equipment at least 2 feet (.61 m) from the edge of excavations, or by the use of retaining devices that are sufficient to prevent materials or equipment from falling or rolling into excavations, or by a combination of both if necessary.
And as in Zanesville, it had been raining recently, destabilizing the pile of soil outside the trench.

Which is the reason for OSHA standard 1926.651(k)(1)
... An inspection shall be conducted by the competent person prior to the start of work and as needed throughout the shift. Inspections shall also be made after every rainstorm or other hazard increasing occurrence.
In the vast majority of long articles about workers' deaths, a company representative is quoted as saying "We were doing everything right." or "I can't imagine what went wrong. We had no idea." or "It was a freak accident."

And then there's the old "blame the worker" story:
A North Side (PA) man killed in a trench collapse should not have been there, a lawyer for his longtime employer said Tuesday.

William Lee Steadman, 37, was using a small backhoe to dig the trench Monday morning in McKees Rocks, when he climbed into the gully and a water-logged clay and soil wall gave way, burying him up to his shoulders.

Steadman was among about five workers digging inside the garage of the building on Chartiers Avenue, officials have said. None of them was supposed to be in the 7-foot-4-inch deep trench, said Templeton Smith, a lawyer for Steadman's employer, American Contracting Enterprises Inc., which owns the building.
Sometimes they may really believe that there was nothing they could have done. Sometimes they just want to believe it or want others in their community to believe it. But it's important for reporters to dig a little deeper to find out why these tragedies happen and what laws and regulations are being violated. Only when workers and the community understand that almost every workplace accident they read about in the paper could have been prevented will we have any chance of creating the political force that's needed to have strong standards, and meaningful enforcement of workers' legal right to a safe workplace.