Board upholds $301,000 in fines related to death of construction worker
Author: Alex DeMarban
A state review board upheld several fines against an Anchorage construction company after a worker died in a 2015 trench collapse, determining an unsafe workplace and using excavators in the attempted rescue put the man's life at risk.
But, after Hartman Construction and Equipment challenged the original eight fines against it, the Alaska Occupational Safety and Health Review Board reduced the numbers to five and lowered the total penalty from $560,000 to $301,000, according to a March 1 decision announced by the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development Tuesday.
"HCE's inadequate safety culture and blatantly dangerous trench work practices created an extremely unsafe workplace," the board said in its 27-page order. "Its unsafe practice of using its excavators to try to free Mr. Morgan from the collapsed trench caused by its own dangerous trench work practices put him at risk of serious physical harm or death."
The incident occurred June 16, 2015, as Samuel Morgan, 23, worked in the 100-foot-long trench, near 91st Avenue and King Street in South Anchorage. A 6-foot-high trench wall collapsed, burying Morgan to his waist in tons of soil and rubble during his work on the wastewater pipe replacement project.
He suffered pelvic bone fractures and "numerous traumatic injuries to organs and blood vessels in the groin area," said the order, signed by Chair Keith Montgomery and board members Tom Trosvig and Tony Barnard.
Exactly what caused the injuries that led to Morgan's death is in dispute, the decision showed. Complicating matters was that David Hartman and his sons, Derek and Chad, were the only people who witnessed the attempted rescue.
Calls to Hartman Construction, owned by David and Linda Hartman, were not returned Tuesday. The company has filed a notice of appeal in Alaska Superior Court, according to the Labor Department, which originally issued the fines in late 2015.
"In the board's view, the appearance of the wound supports the theory that the excavator played a contributory role in the injury," after a large Hitachi excavator was used to help remove some of the debris, the three-member review board said.
The uniformity of the edges around a gaping wound supported that theory, the board said, after detailed photos of Morgan's body were reviewed. The large excavator was used after a small excavator was too short to be useful, said the order, which stemmed from an Oct. 5-7 hearing.
Whether or not Morgan's injuries were "directly" caused by one of the excavators, their use was "extremely dangerous," the board said.
Dr. Norman Means, a former Alaska medical examiner retained by Hartman Construction to testify as a pathology expert, indicated that Morgan's injuries were caused when trench material slammed Morgan's body into a wall of the trench.
That conclusion was based on testimony from David Hartman about how the incident occurred.
However, the board said it found David Hartman's sworn testimony "less than credible" in key areas. The board's concerns included that Hartman had denied ever being cited by Alaska workplace safety officials for a prior trench violation. When evidence was presented showing the agency had brought such a citation against him in 2005, Hartman later claimed he had forgotten about it, the order said. The board said it was unlikely he would have forgotten, since he hired counsel and filed an appeal with the Department of Labor at the time.
The state said that evidence was presented in the recent case showing Hartman Construction knew the trench could collapse, though the company kept working without instituting safety protections, including not properly sloping or benching the excavation, the agency said.
Morgan's widow, Cassie Morgan, said she and Morgan's family "are extremely disappointed that Hartman Construction and Equipment, Inc. continues to deny responsibility for the actions that led to my husband's death. The pain and suffering we have, and continue to experience, is traumatic."
"We continue to pray that justice will prevail," she said in a statement emailed Tuesday.
Hartman Construction admitted three violations — addressing four of the fines — but said they were not "willful" violations, the decision said. They included not providing a means of egress and lacking adequate safety measures in the trench, including in the form of trench boxes, walled metal structures that protect trench work, the order said.
The fines the board upheld included one that Hartman Construction had violated state law by not creating a work environment free of hazards likely to cause death or serious harm. The company disagreed.
The order called the violations "willful" because they involved "plain indifference" or "conscious disregard" for employee safety.
The case has been "painful" for state officials involved in it, because a man's life ended, said Deborah Kelly, director of the department's Labor Standards and Safety division.
She said the company played "Russian roulette" with Morgan's life because it violated so many safety procedures.
"Given the lax approach to safety, it was only a matter of time of time before a trench cave-in occurred; unfortunately, Mr. Morgan was in the wrong place at the wrong time and suffered the consequences," the order said.
ANCHORAGE, Alaska–The Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development has issued eight citations against Hartman Construction & Equipment, Inc., and fined the company $560,000 for its willful failure to adhere to safety standards. The citations and fines are the result of an investigation conducted after the death of employee Samuel Morgan. Mr. Morgan, who was 23 years old, died at an Anchorage worksite near 91st Street west of King Street on June 16, 2015, when he was partially buried in a trench collapse and then mangled by the construction company’s equipment.
The investigation revealed numerous safety violations at the construction site, including the employer’s basic failure to provide a safe workplace. Other safety violations included failure to provide adequate access and egress from the trench, failure to protect employees from loose rock and soil, failure to properly locate spoil piles, failure to use a protective system in the excavation, and failure to properly bench or slope the excavation. Prior to the fatality, the employer identified a section of the trench wall that had sloughed off and marked the area with traffic cones, yet the protective trench box at the site was not assembled to allow for its use and there were no ladders at the site for safe trench access at the time of the incident.
Mr. Morgan was in the trench when an unguarded wall sloughed off and buried him to the waist. David Hartman, a partial owner of the company, and other employees tried to free Mr. Morgan from the collapsed trench using two excavators and fatally injured him in the process. The State Medical Examiner determined that Mr. Morgan’s injuries resulted from being struck by construction equipment.
“My heart goes out to the family of Samuel Morgan. This avoidable tragedy deserves the full attention of every employer in the construction industry,” said Labor Commissioner Heidi Drygas. “Every employer who has ever thought about cutting corners on safety should view this case as a severe warning that failure to provide the necessary and adequate protections for Alaska’s workers will not be tolerated.” The citations, which carry the maximum penalty allowed under the law, were issued as “willful” due to the indifference the employer exhibited toward following occupational safety and health standards. The employer has the right to formally contest each of the alleged violations outlined in the citations.