Maryland cites company for 'willful' violations in Baltimore trench collapse that killed worker

A White Marsh-based company committed “willful” and “serious” violations that contributed to the death of a 20-year-old contractor working to clear a clogged water line from a Baltimore city pool, a state investigation has found.

The Maryland Occupational Safety and Health agency said it has proposed that R.F. Warder Inc. pay $275,000 in penalties for the June 5 trench collapse in Clifton Park. The agency said the company failed to train its crews to recognize and avoid unsafe conditions and did not conduct adequate daily inspections of the site.

The state also found the crews were working amid accumulating water and the employees did not have protective helmets, ladders or ramps to leave the trench or a protective system in place to protect them from cave-ins.

Theresa Blaner, a spokeswoman for the state, said Warder can request a conference to contest the violations and proposed penalties. A review of online records show fines are routinely reduced during negotiations after the state issues citations for workplace hazards.

“MOSH has determined that employer R.F. Warder failed to comply with state and federal safety regulations, which contributed to the unsafe working conditions that resulted in the death of Kyle Raymond Hancock,” Blaner said Wednesday.

Warder did not respond Wednesday to request for comment. The company has 15 working days to contest the findings. The company also can meet informally with state officials to discuss any steps it can take to improve its workplace practices. The conferences can lead to settlement discussions, which are confidential.

The company was completing “urgent” repairs to a drainage line running from a city pool in Northeast Baltimore when the trench collapsed, killing Hancock, of Glen Burnie.

A city recreation official requested that workers clear the line at the Clifton Park Pool in advance of the pool’s planned opening later that month. Warder was assigned to the job as part of open contracts the company had with the city to maintain sewer lines and heating and chilled water systems. Those contracts were immediately suspended in June.

City officials said they could not provide information late Wednesday on the results of the investigation.

Shoring — such as protective walls and sloped ways out — is required for trenches more than five feet deep, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The trench in Clifton Park was 15 feet to 18 feet deep, more than three times deeper. It also was 10 feet to 40 feet wide, according to the state citations.

A rescue team removed two other workers from the trench who were trying to dig Hancock out. The Baltimore Fire Department’s Special Operations Command unit spent 10 hours installing protective shoring and using hand shovels and other equipment to carefully dig more than 20 feet down to remove Hancock’s body from the ditch.

Hancock's death was ruled an accident by the state medical examiner.

Maryland Occupational Safety and Health, or MOSH, operates under an agreement with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to promote workplace safety and health in the state.

Violation citations are issued based on the severity of the injury or illness and the likelihood a worker could be harmed.

MOSH cited Warder with eight violations, and most were considered serious. Several were characterized as willful, which under state law means an employer either knowingly failed to follow the safety rules or acted with indifference to employee safety.

A lack of training for employees drew the largest proposed fine of $122,000. MOSH said Warder “did not instruct each employee in the recognition and avoidance of unsafe condition(s) … to control or eliminate any hazard(s) or other exposure to illness or injury.”

In another violation, the company did not have daily inspections of the excavation to find places that were at risk of caving in. That citation is for $30,500.

Online OSHA records show MOSH frequently negotiates reduced fines.

In an unrelated situation, Stulz Air Technology Systems Inc. of Frederick was cited earlier this year and initially fined $82,800 for 34 violations. The case was closed in August by an informal settlement that lowered the penalties to $47,600

Fines were also reduced after a Prince George’s County utility worker was killed in 2017 when a seven-foot trench collapsed. Sagres Construction Corp. was initially fined $12,800 for failing to conduct daily inspections of excavations, failing to protect its employees from the hazard of cave-ins and failing to use protective systems that could resist expected loads. The fine was reduced to $2,200 as part of a formal settlement.

Miller, Long & Arnold Co. of Halethorpe is currently contesting a $4,250 fine imposed in March after a carpenter was killed in September 2017 when a 13,000-pound bucket fell from a crane in Baltimore’s Harbor East and struck him.

OSHA categorizes any penalties over $40,000 as “high.” Since 2015, the agency has imposed fines between $51,625 and $108,555 on three private companies and three locations of the U.S. Postal Service.

One case involved a fatality: On April 4, an employee and a supervisor from Prestige Detailing in Crownsville “were riding in a kayak to retrieve a work float that had become disengaged from a pier. The kayak overturned and the employee and supervisor fell into the water, resulting in the employee drowning,” the agency’s report states. The company was fined $55,745 for five violations labeled as “serious,” but the case remains open.

OSHA records detailing 27 fatal workplace accidents in Maryland between 2017 and 2018 show that most have not resulted in any citations, although penalties could be assessed later when investigations conclude. The data is not yet complete.

Although it is unclear the last time Baltimore experienced an excavation death, such incidents kill dozens of workers across the country each year. One cubic yard of soil can weigh up to 3,000 pounds, as much as a small car, making excavation work among the most dangerous of construction activities.

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