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WA Contractor Charged After Fatal Trench Collapse

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

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For the first time in the state’s history, a Washington contractor is facing felony charges in connection with an employee’s death.

Phillip Numrich, who previously owned the now out-of-business Alki Construction LLC, is charged with second-degree manslaughter for allegedly violating and ignoring safety regulations, which led to a trench collapse and death of worker Harold Felton in 2016.

The Accident

On Jan. 26, 2016, crews from Alki Construction were working on a sewer repair project at a Seattle site when a trench collapsed just before 11 a.m. Felton was buried in six feet of wet soil, reports said, and when the Seattle Fire Department arrived there were indications that he was alive.

“When firefighters arrived they were going to rescue him, but after 20 minutes from the last sign of life it became a recovery operation,” said Seattle Fire Department spokesperson Corey Orvold at the time.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s notes on the accident say that the trench “was 21 inches wide by 6 feet long and dug in sandy/loam soil between a sidewalk and the house foundation. There was one hydraulic shore on one side of the trench. There was no shoring at either end.”

The Initial Investigation

In July of that year, the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) fined the contractor more than $50,000 for safety violations related to the accident.

L&I cited Alki for one willful violation, five serious violations and one general violation totaling $51,500 in fines.

The willful violation ($35,000) was for not ensuring that trenches and excavations four feet deep or more had a protective system in place.

The five serious violations included:

  • No formal accident prevention program tailored to the needs of the operation ($3,500);
  • No ladder, ramp or other safe means of exiting the trench ($3,500);
  • Sidewalks and structures were not supported ($3,000);
  • Excavated dirt and other materials were placed less than two feet from the edge of the unprotected trench ($3,000); and
  • No daily inspections to monitor changing soil conditions ($3,500).

The general violation was for not ensuring walk-around safety inspections were documented.

Alki did end up appealing the violations and the initial $51,500 was slashed in September 2016 to $25,750.

What’s Happening Now

On Jan. 5, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office charged Numrich alleging that the shoring system to prevent cave-ins was “wholly inadequate” and have cited his new business—Alki Sewer—in the documents.

“Because his workplace safety measures were so grossly inadequate in this case, causing the death of the victim, his continued operation of a similar business puts other workers at risk,” wrote senior deputy prosecutors Patrick Hinds and Melinda Young.

Reports say that Jay Herzmark, of Safe Work Washington, got 120 people to sign a letter to prosecutors requesting the criminal charges.

Also according to the suit, a state health safety officer found that Felton had been using a Sawzall in the trench, the vibrations of which would have increased the risk of collapse. Prosecutors are alleging that shortly before the cave-in, Numrich saw Felton using the tool but “did not intervene” and—listed as the only “competent” person on the project—left the site to get lunch. The accident occurred while Numrich was away.

“Numrich’s conduct substantially deviated from any known or recognized safety standard and from the standard of care that any reasonable person would exercise in the same situation,” the L&I investigator concluded, according to the charges. “Felton died as a result of Numrich’s criminal negligence.”

Numrich and his attorney have declined to comment. His arraignment is slated for Jan. 18.


Tagged categories: Accidents; Criminal acts; Good Technical Practice; Health and safety; Laws and litigation; North America; OSHA; Safety

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