OSHA investigations can take months; Kellogg bakery fall in Augusta latest probe

Tuesday, July 15, 2014 6:59 PM
Last updated 11:47 PM
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Federal officials continue to investigate the June death of a longtime employee at south Augusta’s Kellogg Bakery and it could take safety inspectors four to six months to determine if the company was at fault in the worker’s fatal fall.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has moved quickly the past five years in eight work-related fatalities and hospitalizations in the Augusta-area to inspect businesses for serious violations.

Once safety hazards were identified, OSHA reports filed between 2008 and 2013 indicate that companies in Richmond and Columbia counties made the necessary adjustments to prevent future accidents the following month.

It was, however, negotiating settlements that prolonged the process of penalizing corporations and moving affected labor forces past tragic events. That part can take more than a year to complete.

“We are extremely saddened by the passing of our colleague and our thoughts and prayers go out to his family during this difficult time,” Kellogg spokesman Kris Charles said Tuesday in a statement regarding the June 24 fatal fall that ultimately took the life of Chester Wright, a 33-year employee.

Wright, 51, was critically injured when he fell from a ladder at the Marvin Griffin Road plant. He died 10 days ago. His funeral was Saturday.

Charles said Kellogg is working with OSHA in its investigation of the situation, but even so, resolutions are known to drag.

The latest company to have a case closed with OSHA was the Tracy-Luckey pecan plant in Harlem. It closed its case Sept. 12, after spending 18 months working with OSHA to investigate the death of a longtime manager. He was killed in March 2012 when a newly installed compressed air unit exploded while a contractor was trying to tighten a joint on a leaky pipe.

Citing a conflict of interest, company CEO Ruth Tracy, said she advised by the businesses attorney not to comment.

William Fulcher, the area director of OSHA’s Atlanta East office, whose jurisdiction includes Augusta, explained the inspection process.

He said in incidents involving an employee death or the hospitalization of three or more workers, businesses are required by law to notify the agency within eight hours of gaining knowledge of the event.

After that, a compliance officer is assigned to the case and has no more than six months to investigate the cause of the accident, propose a computer-generated penalty and offer findings on how to prevent the incident from happening again.

Fulcher said each review is thorough, involves on-site observations, sample tests, measurements and eyewitness interviews, and grades violations on a scale of one to 10 on the probability of a hazard causing injuring or illness to employees.

“They’re not arbitrary,” he said of penalties.

For example, the report for Tracy-Luckey cited the company for a Class 5 violation. The main culprit behind the company’s $63,000 in fines, which included 16 violations, were damaged steel storage racks that had three bent legs, missing or broken base plates, and were not bolted to the floor, according to reports.

Fulcher said a majority of cases involve serious violations – ranging in fines from $1,500 to $7,000 – similar to those at Tracy-Luckey and that most are non-repeats.

The highest penalties typically issued are “willful” violations, which he described as violations where an employer either “intentionally or through the exercise of plain indifference” allows workers to be exposed to a hazard.

These penalties have only been cited in Augusta once at Utility Lines Construction Services for a Class-10 violation of faulty tools and protective equipment, reports show.

On July 1, 2010, an employee there was pulling a wire into a transformer and was electrocuted when he came in contact with 37 kilovolts of electricity. Through a formal settlement, the $63,000 penalty was reduced to a serious violation and a $5,600 fine. Company representatives did not return a phone message seeking comment.

Fulcher said companies have 15 business days after a penalty is proposed to negotiate with his staff for reduced fines, an approach he estimated is practiced by 95 percent of businesses cited.

He said that practice is preferred because OSHA can adjust penalties 10 percent if a company has a clean history, 25 percent if it has safety and health programs in place, and up to 60 percent if it has fewer than 10 employees.

Tracy-Luckey worked with OSHA to negotiate its penalties in an informal settlement, but Fulcher said some companies, such as Utility Lines Construction, still contest the fines legally through their attorneys or in court.

In all, records show seven work-related fatalities and three injuries in area businesses for electric shock, chemical burns and equipment failures from 2008 to 2013. The cases have resulted in $112,960 in penalties.

Fulcher said the fines are an effort of “public deterrence.”

“We want to ensure employers use reasonable diligence to protect workers from hazards and not allow employees to be exposed for fear of the consequences,” he said.

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