Construction workers lack safety gear while building Boise townhomes
It was Brandon Ho’Rine’s first day on the job.
At age 42, Ho’Rine had been a construction worker for decades. An alcoholic, he had been drinking again. But with an infant son, he was trying to get his life back on track in Boise when he answered a Craigslist job listing last September.
Ho’Rine was a framing specialist, not a roofer. He knew how to tear off shingles, though, and that’s all RP Construction of Nampa needed.
“There was a guy that picked him up that morning and took him to work,” said Ho’Rine’s mother, Linda Hayes. “There was no paperwork signed, nothing. And he wasn’t on the job that long.”
A few hours later, Ho’Rine seemed to lose his footing on the roof of a house RP was re-roofing and fell one story to the ground, Hayes said. He arrived at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise unconscious, with a traumatic brain injury.
Hayes was “shocked” when she got a call from Ho’Rine’s teenage son, asking her to come to the hospital. Ho’Rine was an experienced tradesman and athletic, she said.
Ho’Rine spent a week at the hospital and never regained consciousness. Doctors said he would never recover, and his family decided to remove life support on Sept. 19.
Hayes said the worker’s compensation insurer denied a claim for Ho’Rine’s death because a test detected marijuana and painkillers in his body, and because he had a history of alcoholism. His family questions whether he was intoxicated or just had traces of substances from recent use.
His employer never told the Occupational Safety and Health Administration of his injury or death.
The Boise father of three should have been wearing a hard hat and a harness, tied by a rope to an anchor on the roof. Instead, Ho’Rine became one of a growing number of residential construction workers who are killed or seriously injured each year — casualties of the Treasure Valley’s much-celebrated housing boom.
“The number of employers in Idaho’s residential construction industry that consistently fail to protect their workers from falls hazards is very troubling,” OSHA Area Director David Kearns said in an announcement after Ho’Rine’s death.
HUNDREDS OF VIOLATIONS IN IDAHO
A Statesman analysis of OSHA inspection data from March 2011 through December 2016 shows a pattern of carelessness in Idaho’s home-construction industry.
At least 19 home-construction companies in the Treasure Valley failed three or more inspections in that time because of serious worker-safety violations. Employers were cited with more than 400 serious or willful safety violations.
Statewide, OSHA cited residential-construction employers with 576 serious or willful violations and 170 less-serious violations.
In some cases, the inspections were prompted by a worker’s death or injury.
Most of the Treasure Valley companies are still doing business.
The Statesman visited some home-construction sites in January and found workers on roofs without safety gear in snowy, icy conditions. One worker stood on a second-story ledge and leaned out over empty space to use a nail gun, while his coworker swept snow off the edge of the roof. Neither was tied to an anchor as required by law.
David Hale, of Hale Construction, was the developer on one of those projects. He told the Statesman he “made direct mention of them in one of the weekly safety meetings, as I caught them not following rules a couple times.” But he isn’t on site every day, so he must “trust [that] the owners of those companies are policing their workers and following not only my company policies, but local and state rules/regulations as well.”
Kearns called Ho’Rine’s death “a tragic reminder of what happens when employers do nothing to protect their workers. Employers must stop gambling with workers’ lives and change the way they operate before an OSHA inspection or before another worker dies needlessly.”
Falls make up almost 40 percent of construction-industry deaths nationwide, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Fall hazards are “the No. 1 killer in construction,” Kearns said. Roofers ranked fourth out of all professions for highest number of fatalities in 2014.
But falls aren’t the only risks. And deaths aren’t the only tragic outcome.
“Every year, several hundred construction workers [in the U.S.] are killed by falls, but tens of thousands are seriously injured,” Kearns said.
A TOXIC WORK ENVIRONMENT
A Treasure Valley doctor called OSHA last October after diagnosing an employee of a local landscaping company, Boulder Creek Full Service Landscape, with acute silicosis, a debilitating and incurable lung disease caused by breathing crystalline silica dust. A second employee could not afford to see a doctor but also had symptoms of silicosis.
The employees were part of a team doing a four-year landscaping project at a million-dollar Garden City home.
“After opening the inspection, it was revealed that two Latino laborers, including the worker with silicosis, were dry cutting Lions Pride Flagstone bricks for extensive planters throughout the property,” the OSHA report said. They worked at least five days a week, up to 10 hours per day. During the winter, they set up an insulated tent to stay warm while they cut the flagstone. That made the unsafe conditions worse; they spent two months a year in a cloud of toxic dust.
Most of the time, they did not wear masks to filter out the crystalline silica, which scarred their lungs.
An employee told OSHA that workers received “one small box [of masks] about once per month, and have to reuse until they are unable to be used.”
The employer told OSHA he never tested the brick or the airborne particles, either.
The agency cited Boulder Creek with one serious or willful violation and fined the company $3,741. After the owner cooperated and agreed to safer practices, OSHA reduced the fine to $2,500.
Owner Jim Ingle did not respond to telephone messages from the Idaho Statesman.
Workers also are struck or trapped on the job.
Two men working for Meridian-based Hard Rock Construction died and another was injured in a May 2016 trench collapse. The laborers had been excavating at Hill Road and Gary Lane as part of a residential construction project. But according to Kearns, the cave-in protections were “woefully inadequate” to keep the trench walls from collapsing on workers.
OSHA fined Hard Rock $77,319. Hard Rock is appealing.
IS THE ‘WILD WEST’ CHANGING?
Adam Roe started his eponymous painting company in the early 1980s. It was the “wild west” in residential construction back then, he said.
Harnesses? Tie-offs? Hard hats and guard rails? Not a chance.
“Anything you could think of that was a big no-no happened on new residential [construction sites],” he said.
Then his younger brother tripped and hurt his back while working for the company in Mountain Home.
“That kind of got the ball rolling for us,” Adam Roe said. “We just had a series of small things like that happen, and they started to add up. Our workman’s comp rates started to climb, and we weren’t getting the preferred rates we once had. It made us take pause and think about what was our programming.”
The Meridian company also branched into commercial painting. That introduced Roe to the commercial construction world, where the culture was shifting. More companies were starting to work closely with OSHA to stay in compliance.
Growing up in the business, he learned to think of OSHA as “the big bad wolf,” he said. “They were going to come devour you, and give you a hefty fine, and run you out of business.”
But the company’s vice president and administrative manager — his wife, Risa Roe — began to research safety and OSHA standards to put together the safety handbooks that commercial contractors wanted to see from subcontractors like Adam Roe Painting.
“What we found is they’re not the big bad wolf,” Adam Roe said. “They want to be your ally.”
Risa Roe made safety her personal mission. She got involved with the Safety Fest conference, a multiday series of classes on everything from fire extinguishers and first aid to asbestos and scaffolding. Now the company sends its workers to at least one class at Safety Fest every year, on top of regular on-the-job training.
Making those changes wasn’t free. Buying safety equipment for every employee and paying for them to attend hours of training on the clock can be expensive. (Harnesses and full safety kits run about $50 to $300.) But the investment pays for itself, the Roes said.
For a company of Adam Roe Painting’s size — 25 to 30 employees — a good safety record can save $10,000 to $40,000 a year on insurance alone, Risa Roe said.
And when the company bids for a job, it highlights its safety program. That is attractive to homeowners who don’t want someone dying or being injured on their property.
A NEAR-MISS CHANGED HIS MIND
Corbin Elwell, 48, is foreman and project manager for Adam Roe Painting. He joined in October 2015 after 20 years in the industry.
“Before I came to Adam Roe Painting, every contractor I’d ever worked for did not apply the rules,” Elwell said. “You could hang off a roof and paint a fascia board or a gutter.”
When he started at the company, he thought it went “a little overkill” on safety precautions, he said.
Until last fall. Elwell was working on the dormer of a house, at nearly three stories high. He was tethered to an anchor on the roof, but he kept tripping over the tethering cord and felt “ridiculous,” he said.
“Next thing I know, my feet went out from under me,” and he slid head first toward the edge of the roof. The harness caught him and pulled him back upright. “I was dangling about 28 feet above the concrete slab below me,” he said.
He credits the harness with saving his life.
He wishes he had been harnessed in 2008, when he fell 25 feet onto concrete from a catwalk. He broke both heels and couldn’t walk for six months. He had ankle and back surgeries.
“Conveniently, who I was working for didn’t have any worker’s comp” insurance, he said, declining to name the employer.
Elwell paid more than $30,000 out of pocket for treatment. And he quit the job.
When employees join Adam Roe Painting, they sometimes roll their eyes at the harness, as he did. Newer painters don’t believe in the risks, and seasoned painters are set in their ways.
Elwell doesn’t back down. He walks them through two hours of training — ladder safety, harnesses, respirator masks — and enforces the rules on his job sites.
Adam Roe sometimes even reaches out to other contractors when he drives by a site and sees workers being unsafe. He said he called a local residential contractor — Roe declined to name the company — because roofers were not harnessed while shoveling ice off the roof. The contractor did not seem concerned, he said.
“I try not to be a jerk about it, but, you know, it’s something we’re passionate about,” he said.
CHANGING THE CULTURE
Tyler Bosier, owner of B&B Custom Homes in Meridian, was a residential framing contractor for years. He “used to giggle” at fall protection, he said.
His outlook changed after OSHA fined his company thousands of dollars. He started taking safety more seriously. Then he met Adam Roe.
Roe pitched an idea: What if they installed a permanent anchor, or “D ring,” on every new roof?
That would give painters, roofers and siding workers something to hook into during construction. And it would stay there for anyone who needs to repair shingles, hang Christmas lights or install a satellite dish.
Bosier loved the idea. He now installs D-rings on all his new houses. It adds “maybe $25” to the project, but it’s a potential life-saver, he said.
While safety advocates wish every roof had a permanent anchor, no law in Idaho requires builders or roofers to install them.
And OSHA has limited authority. Contrary to popular belief, Kearns said, the agency cannot shut down a business. In rare situations, it can ask a court to order temporary shutdown if there is “imminent danger” of life-threatening injuries.
But it can issue fines.
“We have so few OSHA representatives that there needs to be a deterrent for folks to learn and do the right thing,” Kearns said. “If we were just showing up and issuing warnings, there would be even less incentive for people to do the right thing.”
In the past five years, OSHA fined employers in Idaho’s residential construction industry more than $1.6 million for hundreds of violations, reducing that to $1.1 million in settlements.
But with only eight compliance officers for the entire state, OSHA’s reach is limited. Officers focus on outreach, trying to educate contractors and give them advice.
Commercial construction firms have been the most eager to work with OSHA on safety and joined the “Partner with OSHA” program, Kearns said.
“They have seen the bottom line,” he said.
‘YOU ALWAYS GET HURT A LITTLE BIT’
While some contractors, like B&B Custom Homes, take OSHA’s recommendations to heart, others ignore the guidance.
That’s what happened when OSHA paid a visit to a house that LJ Eells Construction was framing in Meridian two years ago.
Owner Jeremy Eells told the Statesman that he has worked in construction “off and on” since age 10. He is now 31 and started his company in Canyon County four or five years ago, he said.
An OSHA inspector happened to notice unsafe working conditions at the Meridian house in May 2015 and stopped to investigate. There, the inspector found three employees in danger. Among other things, they weren’t wearing harnesses or hard hats. One worker, age 16, was 19 feet above the ground without protection, the report said.
Eells told the inspector that “if it was God’s plan for him to die, then it’s against the Bible for him to do anything to prevent it,” the OSHA report said. “This includes using fall protection.”
1099 DOESN’T ERASE WORKER PROTECTIONS
Eells had been paying his crew members as independent contractors, and he argued to OSHA that they weren’t employees.
Eells is far from the only employer to call his workers “independent contractors,” issuing them 1099 tax forms instead of W-2s. It is a national problem. Misclassifying employees is a way an employer can evade costs and responsibilities, such as paying worker’s compensation insurance and payroll taxes and ensuring worker safety.
Misclassification is “disproportionately higher” in residential construction than commercial construction, Kearns said.
OSHA determined that Eells was the only crew member who should not be considered an employee.
Eells told the inspector that he didn’t have his crew wearing hard hats because “they are hot and miserable” and the workers would “go work for someone else” if he made them wear hats.
OSHA cited him with four serious or willful violations and fined him $11,400.
Eells told the Statesman he does not believe harnesses and hard hats can prevent deaths.
“You always get hurt a little bit, here and there, but that’s just part of life,” he said. He also reiterated that “God is the one who says when you die or live.”
When asked if the OSHA enforcement had changed how he does business, Eells said it did: He found a way to get around OSHA’s requirements. The law applies only to employees, not employers. So he turned his four workers into employers, of a sort.
“I made everybody legal owners, made everybody buy in” to the company, he said.
Eells still does not have workers’ compensation insurance for his crew. The crew still does not wear safety equipment while framing houses unless a builder requires it, he said.
“I think OSHA’s crooked,” Eells said. “As soon as somebody starts making money, they have to have their fingers in it. … I believe you do what you want to do, and that’s how my jobs are run.”
He said the 16-year-old employee is still with the company, now as an 18-year-old owner.
‘THERE’S NO REASON’
Why do builders, roofers, framers and siding companies in Idaho send people up high without a harness? Why don’t they require hard hats? Why do they leave safety decisions up to their employees and look the other way?
It’s part of the culture, Kearns said.
“I hear of some folks in states where they have very large OSHA offices and are very progressive as far as what they’re doing, there is the expectation that, ‘Hey, if I’m working across the border in Washington, I know I’ve got to do right, but as soon as I come over the border to Idaho, it seems to be a little different here,’” Kearns said.
Washington, like about half of states in the U.S., has its own worker-safety program that meets or exceeds federal OSHA requirements.
But many states, not just Idaho, struggle with worker safety in the residential construction industry, Kearns said.
Before he moved back to Boise, Brandon Ho’Rine worked in the Seattle area. Most of his jobs were under a trade union, according to his family.
Without fail, the union jobs were safer, his family said. He always got a harness and a hard hat. His ex-wife of 18 years said he was injured once, on a nonunion job. That time, his wrist broke so badly it had to be fused back together.
But the final time he was injured, he left behind a grieving mother, an ex-wife who said he was “very loving and caring and would give the shirt off his back to anybody,” a girlfriend and three children.
OSHA cited RP Construction for failing to prevent HoRine’s death by making sure he had fall-protection equipment — required when workers are 6 feet or more above the next-lower level — and for not training new workers. The agency fined the company $13,971.
Owner Ryan Andersen declined to comment when the Statesman called RP Construction last year after the incident.
A call to RP Construction’s business phone number last week was answered by a man who identified himself as Andersen’s secretary. He said RP Construction no longer exists and the phone number belongs to a roofing company with a different name. The Statesman could find no state contractor registration for that business or any other owned by Andersen. RP Construction’s registration has expired.
With a harness to catch his fall, even an intoxicated Ho’Rine might have survived.
“I just hope something good comes out of this, because it’s happening everywhere,” Hayes said. “There’s no reason he should have died. There’s just no reason.”
Her son’s death gave her a new set of eyes. She pays attention to construction sites now. She asked workers building a local Walmart store if they had fall protection. (They did.) During the record-breaking snowfall in Southwest Idaho, she watched fearfully as people climbed onto slippery roofs.
Her boyfriend runs a staffing service, and he sent out employees to do snow removal last winter, just a few months after Ho’Rine’s death. She told him: “You better make sure they have harnesses.”
What can you do?
Worker safety is a community service, said David Kearns, area director for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration in Boise. When a worker gets hurt on the job, it sets off a ripple effect in insurance rates, taxes, lost productivity and other parts of the economy, he said. And a tragedy like last year’s trench collapse, or a worker falling from a family’s roof, takes an emotional toll on the survivors and those in the neighborhood.
If you’re hiring a residential construction company, ask about worker safety. Do the roofers wear a harness that is tied to an anchor? Does the company carry worker’s compensation insurance?
You also can search the company’s name in OSHA’s enforcement database for past violations. Check Idaho’s court records for lawsuits against the company. (Click here for Ada and Twin Falls county records. Click here for the rest of the state.)
“Let your conscience be your guide,” Kearns said. “It’s tough to say, ‘Oh, I see someone working unsafe. I’m going to be a snitch and call OSHA.’ But it’s also sometimes tough to go up and start talking to those people and go, ‘You know, I’m concerned about your well-being, and I’d really rather you not take a fall off my roof.’”
But those are two ways to intervene before someone gets hurt, he said.