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Dying to Work: Trench Collapse, Manure Pit Drowning Among OSHA's Top Idaho Probes 

"It was a preventable tragedy—one of the worst ways I can think of dying,"

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The incidents couldn't have been more different. One occurred in a busy Boise neighborhood and emergency responders swarmed to the scene. The other occurred in a dairy farm manure pit in the tiny Jerome County town of Hazelton.

In Boise, crews from the city's fire and police departments teamed with Ada County Paramedics and the Ada County Highway District to free three men who had been buried alive in a trench collapse. In Hazelton, a dairy worker lay in the manure pit for 10 hours before his body was pulled from the scene. In the end, two of the Boise victims and the lone Hazelton victim were dead. The cases of all three are now receiving significant attention from the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

"From one angle or another, I have personally known a lot of people involved in Idaho work-related tragedies. It's very personal for me," said David Kearns, OSHA director for the state of Idaho. "When I was growing up here in Boise, I never planned on being the 'OSHA guy.' But it didn't take more than a couple of investigations for me to start getting pretty preachy based on the things I've seen and how they have rocked communities and hurt families."

As for the dairy worker in Hazelton, identified as 37-year-old Ruperto Vazquez-Carrera, who drove his feed truck toward the Sunrise Organic Dairy Farm manure pit but never returned, he is one of a multitude of Idaho farm workers whose primary language isn't English.

"It's a real tragedy. About half of the fatalities we had last year involved people where English was not their first language," said Kearns. "They're vulnerable workers. They may fear deportation; they're open to exploitation. They're afraid of the federal government and they don't know the difference between OSHA and ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the enforcement arm of U.S. Department of Homeland Security]."

The investigation into Vazquez-Carrera's death is complete and is currently being reviewed at a higher level "due to the nature of the incident," Kearns said.

"It was a preventable tragedy—one of the worst ways I can think of dying," he said.

In addition to triggering a federal investigation, the Hazelton manure pit drowning also drew the attention of the United Farm Workers of America.

"After his truck submerged into the manure pit, that man's body lay in there until the next day," said Indira Trejo, UFW Global Impact coordinator. "That quickly came on our radar because, in February of 2015, another dairy worker drowned in a manure pit at the Riverview Ranch Dairy in Mabton, Wash."

UFW lobbied the Washington Legislature for improved dairy safety standards, but said aggressive opposition from the dairy industry killed the proposed bill. The UFW is now pushing for a meeting with Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, reminding Gem State lawmakers that the most recent fatal incident at the Hazelton dairy is not an anomaly—three dairy workers around the state were killed on the job in 2013 alone.

"When the United Farm Workers started communicating via Facebook about the struggles at Washington dairy farms, we began getting a lot of communication from Idaho workers telling us to come here," said Trejo. "And after the drowning in Hazelton, we knew we had to come."

Trejo met with Boise Weekly in early May, after she spent several days traveling across the Magic Valley meeting workers and their families in coffee shops, restaurants, churches and living rooms. But never at a worksite.

"Are you kidding me? I would probably be shot if I set foot on a farm," she said. "What did I hear from the workers? What did I not hear? I just talked to a farmworker who was injured on the job. Last week, he didn't have food to eat, so he had to figure out a way to work. Even though he's hurting on one side, he's driving with his other hand. And as for accidents on the job? I heard about a lot of them, reported and unreported."

Meanwhile, in Idaho's state capital, the town is still buzzing about the May 3 trench collapse that claimed two lives and seriously injured another worker. The incident filled the television airwaves for days and had more than a few people guessing exactly what happened. Owners of Meridian-based Hard Rock Construction, which employed the three men, are remaining tight-lipped about exactly what happened. The day after the tragedy the trench had already been backfilled and paved over with asphalt.

Nonetheless, the investigation into the Boise trench collapse has garnered the attention of OSHA.

"I won't tell you too much, because it's an open investigation," said Kearns, but agreed to provide details on trench-digging in general and the type of five-foot-deep Boise trench that collapsed in particular.

"A trench wall is almost always a dirt wall. Usually, there's nothing to back the dirt. There are a variety of methods they can use to protect themselves. One, is to slope the walls back, 1 ½ [feet] horizontal to 1 [foot] vertical [or about 34 degrees]."

Since the trench collapse, some media reports have included speculation that the Hard Rock crew hadn't been using any shielding, such as a trench box. That's something Kearns wouldn't comment on.

"Without talking about this particular case, I can tell you that if you're working in a narrow, confined space and don't want to do that much digging, another option is to use some kind of shielding."

When asked about OSHA's working relationship with Idaho employers, Kearns had some praise for a number of industries, but reserved particular criticism for one of the fastest-growing industries in the Gem State, particularly in the post-recession era: home builders.

"If I were to talk about a trade where we have some of our most difficult dealings, it would be the residential construction industry," he said. "A number of general contractors want to be hands-off and have no responsibility. And then the subcontractors believe that they best way to stay out of trouble with OSHA is to run away and shut down the job when they see us coming. That's pretty dangerous. There's a majority... yes, I would say majority that believe that's what it's all about. That's a real tragedy."

The worst of the tragedies result in death on the job. It's a grim reminder each May 1, when Kearns joins Idaho labor leaders to mourn those who have lost their lives in the service of others on Workers Memorial Day. This year, the names of 13 men and women were read. The causes of death included logging camp accidents, workers being crushed by vehicles, severe dehydration and a woman whose hair was caught and pulled her into a conveyor shaft at a Canyon County seed plant.

"Employers are required to notify OSHA within eight hours of a catastrophe. Beginning last year, employers are also now required to notify us of hospitalizations or amputations. That's an area I think we saw a dramatic level of underreporting before," said Kearns. "But sometimes we learn of something because it just broke as news and someone like George Prentice calls me and asks, 'Can you comment on this?' That will start an investigation, too."

Time and again, Kearns tells anyone who will listen that nearly every accident, hospitalization and fatality was preventable.

"They're prevented by following basic, recognized safety rules and practices. As far as the trench cave-in, I don't know yet if that was preventable," he said. "But we have a six-month statute on that investigation."

That means sometime before early November, OSHA will come out with its investigation on the Boise trench collapse. Before that, sometime around mid-August, OSHA should reveal its findings on the Hazelton manure pit drowning.

"In some cases, we may need to continue that investigation, but if we're going to issue any citation, it has to be within six months," said Kearns. "The public and, most importantly, families deserve answers."

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