OCTOBER 4, 2016
BOISE, IDAHO – 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.
MORE: OSHA investigating after trench workers killed
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.
The lone survivor says he did not feel safe in the trench.
Dean Johnson, KTVB 6:56 PM. MDT June 22, 2016
Jorge Soto spent seven days in a hospital bed recovering from a trench collapse that took the lives of two of his co-workers. Soto suffered a broken wrist, multiple broken ribs, both of his shoulders were broken, and he still cannot see out of his left eye.
We spoke to Jorge Soto through interpreter Jesus Alcelay. Soto says it's a day he'll have pictured in his mind forever.
"He cannot take out of his mind the situation that he was in a hole and that it is very difficult for him. He cannot sleep because all the time because it comes all those memories," Soto said.
Soto says around 3:40 that afternoon he went to a job on the corner of Hill Road and Gary Lane to help some fellow co-workers with a job, when the trench collapsed on him and the two others.
"It was so, so fast there was nothing they could do about it," Soto said.
Soto was buried alive under two feet of dirt for what he says nearly 10 minutes.
"One stone who hit him in the face. It make a little hole and that little hole he could start breathing with that little hole between the face and the stone had a little hole and he could start breathing," Soto said.
According to Soto, immediately after the collapse happened, his friend and this other man, who he described as an American, sprang into action and started digging him out.
"Finally his friend through his mouth and took his nose up from the dirt and then he little by little started digging because he could not get out because all his chest and the arm and the shoulder was broke," Soto said.
He says it took about 25 minutes to get him completely out of the ground. Soto suffered a number of injuries, but says the worst pain is thinking about his two co-workers who died that day.
"His heart and his brain. The only thing he is thinking is about his mens, the people that they get buried and died and that is the worst of his pain," Soto said.
Soto says he has worked for Hard Rock Construction for the last five years doing a lot of odd ball jobs, but had never been in a trench that deep before. According to Soto, there was no safety measures in place.
"He and his friends never felt it secured because the company they didn't put any security means in order for it not to happen," Soto said.
Soto says he doesn't know whose decision it was to not put in a trench box, but added this serves as a lesson all companies should remember.
"He wants all the companies to protect the workers because he doesn't want to lose more lives," Soto said.
It's a message he says he's able to get out because of his friend and this passerby that helped save his life.
"He wants to learn and find out and wants to know who is that third person who help him, that American guy, who helped his friend to dig him out because he doesn't know who was that person," Soto said.
Soto added one of the main reasons he was able to be rescued is because when the trench collapsed he was standing up, while the other two men, who tragically did not make it out, were bent down. Soto says he is getting some money from the insurance to help pay bills, but does not know when he will be able to go back to work.
KTVB contacted Hard Rock Construction due to these recent allegations by Soto that no safety measures were used. The owner was not in at the time, but the man who answered the phone says they are working through it with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and cannot comment at this time.
Copyright 2016 KTVB