Monday, July 12, 2004

Lives Are Cheap in N.C.

The Asheville Citizen-Times is angry at the state of North Carolina for the puny fine assessed on a company, Maintenance Unlimited, for killing Donald DeHart in an 18-foot deep trench last January:
If all the allegations made by the state Department of Labor are true, a fine of $19,600 is utterly inadequate in the death of Donald DeHart. DeHart, 43, was killed Jan. 18 when the 18-foot-deep ditch in which he was working in Fairview collapsed. It took rescuers eight hours to reach him, then three more to remove his body. The work was slow because digging had to be stopped periodically so the walls of the ditch could be shored up.

"We don't want to lose a person while we're attempting to rescue another one," said David Walker, public information officer for the Garren Creek Fire Department and Fairview Fire and Rescue.

Unfortunately for DeHart, no one had shored up the walls of the ditch in which he died. State Occupational Safety and Health rules require shoring or sloping sides for any ditch deeper than five feet. In addition, according to a Department of Labor report, there was no ladder, ramp or other safe way for workers to get out of the trench.

And that's just for starters. The report also says employees were not instructed in recognizing safety hazards, the dirt removed from the trench was left at the edge instead of at least two feet away so its weight wouldn't make the walls unstable, and the trench had not been inspected by someone with expertise in trench safety before work began and during the shift.

All the violations are classified as serious and Labor has proposed penalties totaling $19,600.

"I think it's so sad that a human life is worth so little," said DeHart's sister, Revonda Johnson. So do we; if everything Labor says is substantiated, the penalties are so inadequate as to be meaningless.
The Citizen-Times has been on this case from the beginning. I complimented the paper last January for writing a rare, well written, educated editorial condemning a company for violating OSHA standards and killing DeHart:
The accident that claimed DeHart's life reminds us that OSHNC regulations are not just another way for a government bureaucracy to harass employers and workers. They are in place because obeying those rules saves lives. If the ditch that collapsed on DeHart had been constructed according to OSHNC standards, DeHart would almost certainly be alive today. Yet, both employers and employees often ignore OSHNC regulations because complying would cost extra money or take additional time. The price for not doing so can be far more dear than an OSHNC fine.
The company, of course, is contesting the citation. And why not? They've got nothing to lose but their fine reputation.

Oh, and one more unresolved issue. The company claims that DeHart wasn't eligible for workers compensation because he was an "independent contractor." The Citizen Times is skeptical:
That should be checked out. If DeHart in fact were an employee improperly classified, it wouldn't be the first time an employer has claimed his workers were independent contractors in order to evade responsibility and dodge payments into the worker's compensation fund.