Local company fined for trench collapse that killed man

Safety advocate wants harsher penalties for companies that violate rules and endanger workers.

The U.S. Department of Labor has fined a local plumbing company for unsafe working conditions stemming from a fatal trench collapse in April, but some say the penalty is not enough to deter companies from ignoring safety requirements.

Dayton-based contractor Payne Enterprises Inc. must pay $145,860 or contest the findings from the investigation into the April 6 trench collapse in Sugarcreek Twp. that killed 43-year-old Dalbert Burton, the U.S. Department of Labor announced Friday.

RELATED: Company whose worker died in trench had earlier safety violations

Payne Enterprises was cited for two repeat violations for “exposing employees to multiple trenching and excavation hazards,” and has two previous similar violations at home construction sites — one in 2017 in Clearcreek Twp. and one in 2018 in Beavercreek Twp., according to the release.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations require employers to slope, shore or shield trench walls to prevent cave-ins.

“Tragedies such as this are preventable when employers comply with safety standards that exist to protect workers from trenching hazards,” OSHA Area Director Ken Montgomery said in a prepared statement.

Burton was working alone in a trench that was 11-feet deep when the walls caved in at a home under construction in the Landings at Sugarcreek subdivision off Upper Bellbrook Road. It was a Saturday, and the cave-in was discovered after a neighbor noticed a backhoe idling without any activity around it.

Burton’s death was the third trench collapse fatality in the Dayton area since 2016.

According to OSHA statistics, trench safety violations are not uncommon. In 2018, OSHA inspected 1,143 trenches and cited 1,149 hazards across the nation, resulting in approximately $5.7 million in fines, according to a U.S. Department of Labor spokesperson.

The maximum fine for a “willful or repeated” OSHA safety violation is $132,598, the spokesperson said. Payne Enterprises was fined $72,930 for each of two violations, according to records.

Payne Enterprises Owner Rick Westendorf declined to comment for this story.

The penalties are not enough to force companies to change, according to Thurman Wenzl, a Cincinnati-based workplace safety advocate who retired from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

“These are proposed fines that are often negotiated way down,” Wenzl said. “It’s a nationwide problem. Lots of small employers are killing their workers in trenches. I think the law needs to change to make it easier for OSHA to crack down on those who violate the law.”

Wenzl said one change that should be made is raising the ceiling on the maximum level of fines.

From 2011 to 2017, there were 157 trench-related fatalities across all industries, an average of more than 22 deaths a year, according to Department of Labor statistics.

Federal officials recognize that companies fear being penalized if they admit to not understanding safety procedures. That is why there are 27 OSHA training-related nonprofit organizations across the country that can provide the required training without that concern, according to John Morris, president of Springboro-based Mid-America OSHA Education Center.

The center, at 33 Greenwood Lane, provides training to thousands of workers every year and provides consulting services to companies in their efforts to formulate safety programs.

Morris said he wished he knew the formula to “incentivize companies to protect their employees.”

“There’s no reason for organizations not to reach out and find out what more they could be doing to protect their employees,” Morris said. “A safety program is always proven to be far less expensive than the cost of an accident. And no one can put a price on human life.”

For more information about Mid-America OSHA Education Center, visit their website midamericaosha.org or call (866) 444-4412.


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