Maryland safety officials say it likely will take several weeks to determine the cause of a trench collapse that killed a 20-year-old Glen Burnie man.
Kyle Hancock was part of a crew working to fix a sewage backup near a recreation center in Northeast Baltimore’s Clifton Park Tuesday when a mass of dirt and debris caved in on him. A 2016 high school graduate, Hancock loved soccer and was working toward a career in plumbing and repairing heating and cooling systems, according to an online obituary.
City fire officials said the 15-foot trench Hancock was working in had no protective shoring in place, despite a federal law that requires walls, slopes and other shields to stop the earth from collapsing. Digging trenches is considered dangerous work with dozens of people across the country killed each year in collapses.
It is unclear whether the work was for an emergency repair or planned improvement.
R.F. Warder, a White Marsh-based company, was the contractor on the site of the collapse in the 2000 block of Sinclair Lane.
The company did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Several men standing outside of an address listed for the company declined to comment Thursday. The men said Robert Warder Jr., the company’s agent of record on state filings, was not available. Efforts to reach him by phone were unsuccessful.
It’s unclear what credentials R.F. Warder had to perform the work. In Maryland, no special license is required to dig a trench. Under federal occupational safety regulations, however, all work must be supervised by a person qualified to evaluate dangerous conditions, including unsafe soil conditions. That person must also be empowered to take action to correct the hazard.
Companies must inspect the site when the work begins, and as needed throughout a shift, according to the federal rules.
“Employers are responsible for the safety of their employees, and for knowing and adhering to safety laws,” according to Theresa Blaner, a spokeswoman with the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
The Maryland Occupational Safety and Health office inspects a worksite after an accident, complaint or when another agency requests their assistance, but also may inspect sites at other times for a variety of reasons. State inspectors had not visited the trench work in the 2000 block of Sinclair Lane prior to Tuesday’s accident, officials said.
Baltimore officials would not say whether R.F. Warder had obtained any city permits to perform the work.
Citing potential litigation, city solicitor Andre Davis declined to provide information about the work R.F. Warder was performing connected to the backed-up sewer line. City agencies also refused to say whether the work was for emergency repairs or planned upgrades, how much the city was paying for the work or when R.F. Warder was hired.
“As counsel to the City, we have directed our agencies to be deliberate in their assessment of all aspects of this matter, with our assistance and guidance,” Davis said in an email to The Baltimore Sun. “I believe (as any good lawyer would) that litigation involving the City is likely to arise out of this matter and accordingly, we must limit what we say until we can make a full assessment of all the circumstances.”
City records show R.F. Warder had at least two multimillion-dollar contracts with the city. One contract, worth $13 million through 2019, was to repair and perform maintenance on plumbing and heating systems. A provision in the contract authorizes the company to repair or install sewer lines. Two other companies share the contract.
R.F. Warder also was awarded a portion of a $3 million contract through June 2019, along with the other two companies, to repair and maintain the city’s chilled water systems and associated equipment at various locations.
Davis declined to discuss the contracts.
Experts in trench injuries and workplace compliance said investigators will be seeking to determine whether R.F. Warder had a designated person at the site who knew the safety standards, could identify hazards and had the authority to correct any dangerous situations.
One professor who has studied trench deaths said investigators would likely issue substantial fines if an investigation proves the contractor had no protective shoring in place. Federal safety officials can fine companies up to $12,934 for each serious violation. Willful or repeated violations can draw fines of up to $129,336 a piece.
James Harold Deatherage, an engineering professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee, said trenches can collapse quickly after they are dug, especially when the hole is deep and the soil wet.
“When you open up that trench, it’s as safe as it’s ever going to be,” said Deatherage, a consultant at Construction Engineering Consultants and co-author of a review of trench deaths published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.
“From then on, it’s pretty much downhill.”
Curtis Chambers, president of OSHA Training Services, a private consultant group, said excavators sometimes shirk the regulations to save time, but that all trench tragedies are preventable. Excavators frequently use a steel cube known as a trench box that is lowered into the trench, surrounding and protecting a worker from a potential collapse.
“That’s the problem with cave-ins,” Chambers said. “They don’t happen every time. People get complacent and take short cuts.”
Sewer line excavations, like Tuesday’s, can be even more dangerous because the soil has previously been dug up, Chambers said. The circumstances Tuesday involved “all sorts of red flags,” Chambers said.
During a routine investigation in 2002, state officials cited R.F. Warder for two violations, saying the company did not properly provide information about hazards. Investigators will review the company’s inspection history as part of its inquiry into Hancock’s death.
Hancock’s funeral is planned for 1 p.m. Sunday at Singleton Funeral and Cremation Services, 1 Second Ave. SW in Glen Burnie, according to a notice on the funeral home’s website.
An online obituary shows Hancock was a member of a local steamfitters union. He attended Anne Arundel County public schools and graduated from North County High School. He had a small, tight-knit group of friends, played Xbox and enjoyed time with his family and his dog, Max.
“Kyle’s sense of humor will be missed,” the notice says.
Hancock’s family will host visitations at the funeral home from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday.
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Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this article.