BOISE – Federal safety inspectors say a local excavation company could have prevented the deaths of two men who died after a trench collapsed in Boise last May. A third man suffered serious injuries in the accident.
"I would like to say we found some surprises. We really didn't," said David Kearns, area director for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
OSHA cited Hard Rock Construction, Inc. with three serious citations and one willful citation, and assessed penalties of $77,319.
The workers were doing underground utility work on Gary Lane in Boise in a trench about 10-feet deep when the dirt walls collapsed and buried three workers. Two men, Ernesto Saucedo-Zapata, 26, and Bert Smith Jr., 36, died at the scene. The coroner listed their cause of death as mechanical asphyxia due to compression. A third man, Jorge Soto, suffered multiple injuries including a broken wrist, shoulders and ribs, and he can't see out of his left eye. Soto was buried under several feet of dirt for about 10 minutes.
Hard Rock Construction declined to comment.
OSHA inspectors found that Hard Rock failed to provide cave-in protection systems or a ladder to enter or exit the trench, did not have competent person conducting inspections and failed to train its employees on the hazards and dangers of working in trenches.
"The tragic loss of these men's lives and serious injuries suffered by their co-worker were preventable –which makes this incident even more tragic," Kearns said. "Our investigation found Hard Rock Construction made almost no effort to protect its workers, or even to understand the right ways to avoid the common hazards in this line of work. Hiring workers and assuming they know how to protect themselves is a sure path to tragedy."
OSHA does not have the authority to shut down a business, Kearns says that comes from a court order. The penalties are also determined by Congress.
"It's based upon the severity if an incident were to occur, the probability in the incident occurring," Kearns said. "There was some penalty reduction in this case based upon employer being a relatively smaller employer."
Kearns says because the company received a willful citation it means the U.S Attorney's Office can look into the case.
"If a willful violation results in the death of a worker they can look into that for criminal charges," Kearns said.
Jorge Soto, the lone survivor in the collapse, told KTVB through an interpreter that no amount of money can bring back those lost.
"It's never enough money to be able to recover the lives of the two people that were lost," Soto said.
Soto added that he's still recovering from the collapse and hasn't heard anything from Hard Rock Construction since the incident, but hopes the company can learn from this.
"I just hope they learn from their mistake and prevent any other fatalities or accidents in the future from this and they learn," Soto said.
The company has 15 business days from the receipt of the citations and penalties to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA’s area director, or contest the findings.
The U.S. Department of Labor reports that each year dozens of workers die and hundreds are injured when trench walls collapse and bury them in soil and rock that can weigh several thousand pounds. Excavation cave-ins are among the most common causes of fatalities in the construction industry.