Baltimore suspends work with contractor after death of man in trench, citing 'life safety concerns'

Baltimore officials suspended all of a contractor’s work with the city in response to the death last week of a 20-year-old man who was smothered when the trench where he was working collapsed.

In a letter to R.F. Warder Inc., the city’s purchasing agent cited “life safety concerns” in her decision to suspend the White Marsh-based company’s work on two contracts worth more than $16 million.

“Initial reports of the incident indicate that this loss of life resulted from R.F. Warder’s failure to comply with safety requirements relating to trenching while performing under the Contract,” wrote Erin Sher Smyth, the city purchasing agent, in the letter, which was obtained Monday by The Baltimore Sun.

Maryland Occupational Safety and Health investigators continue to examine the death of Kyle Hancock, who fire officials said was working on a sewer line when the 15-foot trench caved in. His funeral service was held on Sunday.

The state’s investigation is expected to take several weeks.

Smyth said the city was turning over all records related to R.F. Warder's work on the sewer line to state investigators at their request. Once the state investigation is complete, city officials will review the findings and then examine the company’s “apparent breach” of contract provisions requiring it to follow workplace safety regulations, she said.

Robert F. Warder Jr., the president of the mechanical systems contractor, has not responded to multiple requests for comment since Hancock’s death on June 5 .

“There's nothing to be said,” said a woman who answered the phone Monday at R.F. Warder before declining to take a message and hanging up.

A group of men standing outside of the business’s listed address last week declined to comment.

Smyth said in a phone interview that preliminary reports of the incident prompted the decision to halt R.F. Warder’s work with the city.

Fire officials have said the 15-foot trench had no protective shoring in place despite a federal law requiring protection for workers in trenches more than five feet deep.

It remains unclear how the fatal incident in Northeast Baltimore’s Clifton Park unfolded. A spokeswoman for the Fire Department said Hancock was buried by a mass of dirt and debris, explaining that the Glen Burnie man had been working in an unprotected trench.

Rescue personnel removed two other workers who were trying to dig Hancock out when firefighters arrived at the beginning of a 10-hour recovery effort, the spokeswoman, Blair Skinner, has said. Rescuers dug down more than 20 feet to recover Hancock’s body.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, whose North Baltimore district includes Clifton Park, said she was at the scene in the 2000 block of Sinclair Lane in the hours after the trench collapsed. Clarke said she spoke to Hancock’s distraught parents that night, and many questions remain.

Clarke said it is unclear to her whether Hancock was working in the trench when it collapsed or standing on an edge that gave way under his feet.

“It was just about as horrible as it gets,” the longtime councilwoman said. “Why wasn’t that trench reinforced?”

The state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ruled Hancock's death as accidental and police are no longer investigating, Baltimore Police Det. Jeremy Silbert said on Monday.

R.F. Warder’s contracts with the city required the company to uphold laws related to work practices, including regulations that outlined safety requirements for work in trenches.

The city’s suspension affects two contracts that were slated to run into 2019.

In February, the city’s spending panel increased one of the contracts with R.F. Warder by $4 million, reaching a total of $13 million. Two other companies share the contract, which runs through January 2019 for ongoing maintenance and repairs of the city’s plumbing and heating systems. A provision in the contract authorizes the companies to work on sewer lines.

The Board of Estimates initially approved the contract in January 2014 and has more than doubled the original amount over the last four years.

The other is a $3 million contract awarded to R.F. Warder and two other companies in 2014 to maintain and repair the city’s chilled water systems, according to online records. In May 2017, the Board of Estimates approved a renewal of that contract through June 2019.

City officials have declined to say if R.F. Warder had or needed a permit to complete the sewer repairs. They also have not said whether R.F. Warder was carrying out planned maintenance or completing an emergency repair.

The city solicitor, Andre M. Davis, has said he expects “litigation involving the City” to result from Hancock’s death.

It is unclear whether any city inspectors visited the site to examine the trench work before the accident.

The state investigation will include a review of the company’s inspection history. In 2002, R.F. Warder was issued two citations for not properly providing information about hazards.

Experts have said that digging trenches is dangerous work but nearly all deaths and injuries can be prevented.

Curtis Chambers, president of OSHA Training Services, a private consultant group, said last week’s excavation involved “all sorts of red flags” because it followed recent rain and was done over a sewer line, meaning the ground must have been dug up previously.

Hancock was employed by the Steamfitters Local 486.

The relationship between the union and R.F. Warder is unclear. A representative for the union declined to comment Monday.

A GoFundMe account has been set up to cover the cost of Hancock’s funeral and other expenses. More than $1,800 has been raised as of Monday toward a $5,000 goal.

“Anything would be greatly appreciated and we thank everyone for all the love & support that we have received,” the post says.

nbogelburroughs@baltsun.com

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