Theresa O’Hare raged last December at the owner of the Blue Springs plumbing company that employed her son, “D.J.”
Relatives held her back from Arrow Plumbing LLC. owner Ricky Smith as firefighters worked for hours to retrieve the body of 33-year-old Donald J. Meyer from the bottom of a 12-foot trench that lacked the required shoring to prevent cave-ins.
She blamed Smith for what happened that day in Belton. But as the months passed, she found herself seething less as she focused on raising her widower son’s now 9-year-old boy, Ashten, at their home in Oak Grove.
Then this week, anger rose in her again when she learned that Arrow Plumbing had been fined more than $700,000 for workplace safety violations. Not just for Meyer’s death, but also for allegedly failing to take steps to prevent other employees from dying in the same way her son did, suffocating beneath tons of loose soil.
“I just could not believe it,” O’Hare told The Star. “Why couldn’t this man understand or learn his lesson from the death of my son?”
The company is appealing the fines, a process that can take a year. Reached by phone, both Smith and his attorney declined to comment. Smith confirmed his company remains in business. Arrow’s penalty is the second-largest meted out nationwide by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration so far this year against a single employer for allegedly violating workplace safety rules.
The only one larger, $1.47 million, was levied against a company in Massachusetts where two employees died, also in an unshored trench.
That company and its owner were also indicted on two charges of manslaughter by a county grand jury. No charges have been filed against Arrow Plumbing.
Fines are typically the government’s response to fatalities that are the result of safety violations. These big OSHA fines, experts agree, were meant to send a message to an industry notorious for flouting workplace safety regulations when working underground.
Dave Redlin, an Overland Park construction safety consultant, said the allegations against Arrow Plumbing are far from an anomaly. Plumbing contractors often cut corners while working underground, he said. “It’s an epidemic.”
Trench-shoring enforcement has been one of OSHA’s top 10 areas of emphasis for three decades, far longer than any other workplace hazard. Yet trench deaths continue at an alarming rate.
The agency said 23 people died and 12 were injured nationwide in trenches in 2016. Through the first five months of this year, the death rate was on pace to surpass last year’s total, with 15 deaths and 19 injuries recorded as of June 1.
In response, the National Utility Contractors Association this summer staged an industry “stand down” to raise awareness about the need to follow safe practices when working in trenches.
The association said employers set aside time during working hours to stress trench safety guidelines at more than 800 job sites in the United States and overseas, including Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan,
Yet to save time and money, companies will sometimes ignore the requirements even after, Redlin said, one of their own workers dies on the job.
Less than half of Arrow Plumbing’s $714,142 penalty (some $294,059) was for the four serious and three willful violations of workplace safety rules that OSHA said occurred on the Belton job site where Meyer died.
Chief among the rules broken, OSHA said, was Arrow’s failure to provide a trench box or other shoring that would likely have prevented the cave-in. Lack of any training in trench safety was another deficiency cited.
The additional $420,083 in penalties were levied for the same number of serious and willful violations found at a second work site. The fines were higher because it was the second offense.
Five weeks after Meyer’s body was recovered, OSHA responded to a complaint at a Kansas City, North, job site.
There an inspector on Jan. 20 observed two Arrow workers at the bottom of a trench that was 8 to 13 feet deep and 2 to 3 feet wide. OSHA regulations require that trenches be shored or sloped if they are 5 feet deep or more.
This one wasn’t.
Also, there was no ladder for workers to climb out in an emergency, OSHA said.
In both cases, the agency said the company “failed to provide basic safeguards to prevent trench collapse and did not train its employees to recognize and avoid cave-in and other hazards.”
One reason for categorizing the violations as willful is that Smith had attended a trench cave-in safety course in the months before the Belton incident, OSHA learned during its six-month investigation.
O’Hare was aware of that at the time.
“No more than two months before” her son’s death, O’Hare said, “he (Smith) had to go out of town for safety classes and a meeting.”
The fines were levied in June, but O’Hare and her attorney did not know that until last week when The Star also learned of the government’s action and asked the family for comment.
But Meyer’s mother said Arrow’s apparent indifference to safety regulations was no surprise to her, which is why she was so angry with Smith on the day her son died. D.J. often told her about the chances he took.
“He would say, ‘Mom, I got in a ditch today, and it started caving in on me and I got out,’ ” O’Hare said. “And I told him, ‘Please, you’ve got to be safe for Ashten. You’re the only parent he’s got.’ ”
Ashten’s mother had died of a medical condition four years before his dad did, and for that reason the boy clung to him all the more.
“Every morning,” O’Hare said, “my grandson would ask his daddy, ‘Are you coming back home?’ And Daddy would say ‘yes’ and they would hug and kiss each other.”
While Smith declined an interview this week on the advice of his lawyer, he told The Star back in December that he couldn’t understand why Meyer had climbed into the unprotected trench that killed him.
He said a metal trench box was available near the job site, and he didn’t know why Meyer hadn’t used it.
“He was a competent person by his knowledge of what he was doing, his experience,” Smith said at the time. “He had training in trenches before he came to work for us.”
Read the rest of the story here: Kansas City Star
Source: Mike Hendricks of the Kansas City Star
Read more of this critical story at Jordan Barab’s “Confined Spaces” Website
Trench Lessons (not) Learned
I’ve written most of this before, but it seems you can’t repeat it enough.
- According to OSHA, 23 people died and 12 were injured nationwide in trenches in 2016. Through the first five months of this year, the death rate was on pace to surpass last year’s total, with 15 deaths and 19 injuries recorded as of June 1. “Dave Redlin, a construction safety consultant in an Overland Park, MO, said the allegations against Arrow Plumbing are far from an anomaly. Plumbing contractors often cut corners while working underground, he said. ‘It’s an epidemic.’ To save time and money, companies will sometimes ignore the requirements even after, Redlin said, one of their own workers dies on the job.”
- OSHA has effective Excavation and Trenching standards that require trenches over 5 feet deep to be protected through shoring or sloping. The webpage also has fact sheets. And if small employers are confused, they can take advantage of OSHA’s small business On-Site Consultation program.
- You generally can’t dig your way out of a trench collapse. A cubic yard of soil weighs up to 3000 pounds, the weight of a mid-sized automobile. A trench collapse may contain three to five cubic yards of soil. Do the math. Even if you’re only buried up to your waist, successful rescue is unlikely; you’re probably going to die. Even if your head is out of the soil, every time you exhale, the soil will press down on your chest, making it impossible to take another breath.
- You are unlikely to be able to rescue someone from a trench collapse. The soil is heavy, and the trench will continue to collapse, endangering anyone who jumps in attempting to dig out a co-worker. That’s why trench “rescues” quickly become body “recovery,” which typically takes hours. As Belton Fire Chief Norman Larkey said about Meyer’s death, “When I heard it was 12 feet deep, I knew from previous experience it was a body recovery.” The lesson: Only prevention will save lives.
- OSHA penalties are too weak. The maximum OSHA penalty for a serious violation is only, and for a willful. Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, OSHA can only pursue criminal penalties if a willful violation results in the death of a worker. So a company can keep putting workers into deadly trenches indefinitely, and as long as their luck holds out and no one is killed, no one will go to jail. Employers can also be indicted under criminal penalties by local authorities as we saw recently in New York.
- OSHA generally doesn’t have enough inspectors to get to workplaces before someone is killed. It would take 159 years for OSHA to inspect every workplace in the country just once. And if Republicans in the House of Representatives have their way, things will get much, much worse. The House committee bill cuts OSHA’s enforcement budget by $13.5 million, or 6.5% below the FY 2017 budget. (Sometimes OSHA is able to get there on time.)
- You too can address this problem in your own neighborhood if you see a worker in a trench that’s over 5 feet deep. Do-it-yourself instructions can be found here.
- Workers often don’t know how dangerous a job is or how to make it safe. Even when workers know a job is dangerous, they will often continue to do it anyway — especially if they’re not protected by a union — because they need the job to feed their family. Being put in a position to choose between your job and your life is not a position anyone should be in — especially when we’ve had a law on the books for more than 45 years guaranteeing that all workers (except public employees) have a right to a safe workplace.