Hard Rock Construction owner Dave Callister said his company provided a box to brace a trench his workers were digging May 3.
But foreman Bert Smith Jr. removed the box shortly before the trench collapsed, Callister said, killing Smith, 36, and fellow Hard Rock employee Ernesto Saucedo, 26.
“Unfortunately, excavators get very comfortable because they do thousands of trenches that never move,” Callister said Tuesday, lamenting the resulting “complacency.”
Keeping the box in place may not have helped, however. A trench box investigators found at the dig site measured about 4 feet by 5 feet — “woefully inadequate” for the 9- to 11-foot-deep trench, said Dave Kearns, director of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s local office. OSHA released its investigation results Tuesday, citing Hard Rock for failing to provide required cave-in protection and a ladder for its workers.
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“They basically turned over the safety and health to their foremen out there on the jobs. They basically were not exercising any care to get out and determine or identify what was going on at the jobs or to ensure the safety and health of their workers. ... And that is not sufficient,” Kearns said. “These guys, like so many companies, are not bad people. They just made a critically significant mistake by not taking extra steps to protect their workers. And, unfortunately, the ultimate price was paid.”
I would gladly pay the entire OSHA fine. I would sell my car, mortgage my house — whatever it took — if they would give that money to the families who suffered because of this tragedy.
Hard Rock Construction owner Dave Callister
The collapse occurred in the late afternoon near the corner of Hill Road and Gary Lane.
A third worker was injured but survived after he was removed from the trench. Kearns said he is probably permanently disabled.
The victims were part of a crew for Hard Rock, which is based in Meridian. They were digging a trench for a sewer line that would connect to four future homes on the southeast corner of those roads.
A photograph Smith took shortly before the collapse shows three workers in the trench without any cave-in protection, Kearns said. The photo also shows Rob Haddock, part owner of Hard Rock, standing next to the trench, he said. Kearns declined to release the photo to the Idaho Statesman.
OSHA has also cited the company for not properly training its employees on the hazards of working in trenches and not ensuring a qualified expert was inspecting the trenches to make sure proper safety measures were being followed. The agency proposed fines totaling $77,319.
‘I WASN’T SURPRISED’
News of the tragedy shocked excavation crews around the Treasure Valley. Angel Perez, a foreman for Wood Brothers Trucking and Construction in Boise, said he knew the man who survived the collapse.
“When I went to see him, I was almost tearing up,” he said.
Perez said he wasn’t surprised the collapse happened, “but I was surprised at how long it took.”
He said he worked for Hard Rock between the early 2000s and 2011. He said he quit, in part, because Callister often refused to provide safety measures such as trench boxes.
“He didn’t want to rent them,” Perez said. “He’s like, ‘Oh, just get it done quick and then just move on.’ Or where we would get deep into a water table, he didn’t want to rent pumps to pump water out and work safely.”
Right away, I put on the schedule: ‘Meeting. Mandatory meeting. Safety meeting, 8 a.m.’ And everybody was here.
Angel Perez, foreman for Wood Brothers Construction
Callister, who was a financial partner in Hard Rock when Perez worked there but didn’t oversee operations at that point, said that accusation is “grossly inaccurate.” He said Hard Rock did own trench boxes and water pumps. Perez, he said, left the company under bad terms after violating a non-compete agreement.
“What you’ve got is a guy who’s got an axe to grind,” Callister said. “His comments are not based on our policies.”
Callister said he wasn’t at the trench site when it collapsed, but he showed up shortly afterward.
“It's just a stunning loss,” he said.
I feel tremendously responsible. It hit all of us, because obviously, the first thing we think of is, 'What could we have done different?' That's what haunts anybody when a tragedy occurs.
Hard Rock Construction owner Dave Callister
Callister said his company is in regular contact with the worker who survived and Smith’s wife.
“We’re greatly concerned about her,” he said. “She has a tremendous burden. She’s with child. She’s not that far from giving birth. The workers comp hasn’t settled with her, which makes me furious. And we’ve been supporting her and taking care of her.”
Kearns said Hard Rock’s fine amount is unusually high because OSHA investigators classified the failure to provide adequate protection as “willful.” That means Hard Rock was either “plainly indifferent” or showed “intentional disregard” for their workers’ safety, Kearns said.
Hard Rock has three weeks to pay its fines, ask for an informal conference to reduce its penalties or appeal the citation to a judge, Kearns said.
The agency soon will turn over its findings to the U.S. Attorney’s Office as it does in cases that involve willful violations that lead to deaths, he said. But criminal charges are against negligent companies are rare, and OSHA has no control over licensing.
“We don't have the ability to ever shut down a business,” he said. “It basically requires a court order from a judge to stop any business activities.”
Callister said none of the victims nor family members have filed a legal claim against his company.