Manager Claims ‘Unsafe Work Culture’ Leading To Injuries, Death At Wind Turbine Site

Liz Carey

Rainier, WA (WorkersCompensation.com) – A former safety and health manager with a wind turbine project in Washington state has said the contractors for the project are promoting an unsafe work culture that is resulting in preventable work injuries like the one that took the life of a 24-year-old man earlier this year.

Blake Bennett, a safety and health manager with Mountain Crane Services, said that during his five months on the job at the Skookumchuck Wind Project, contractors for Renewable Energy Systems Americans Inc. (RES-America) swept certain incidents under the carpet and worked to prevent workers from publicly reporting work-related incidents.

The 38-turbine wind energy project is under scrutiny following the death of Jonathan Stringer, who died trying to save a co-worker following a trench collapse. The companies involved with the project have been fined more than $500,000 by the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries in connection with Stringer’s death.

Bennett told the Nisqualley Valley News the job site was a hazard to workers.

“It’s probably the most dangerous wind farm I’ve ever been on,” Bennett, 37, said. “I’ve been on 105 wind farms. I’ve been doing wind projects since I was 18.”

Bennett said he was injured earlier this year when a truck hauling a wind turbine component slid into a ditch and tipped over. Bennett and other workers jumped from the truck to avoid injury in the crash. The 8-foot fall from the truck cause major trauma to his shoulders, neck and lower back, he said, putting him out of work for four months.

Because the project site is located in a remote wooded area, it took fire fighters nearly five hours to get Bennett into an ambulance.

Bennett said he and other safety managers tried to warn Southern Power, the majority stakeholder in the project, that the work site was a dangerous environment prior to Stringer’s death.

“I don’t know for sure, but it just feels like my thing was swept under the carpet. It’s, like, how many other things have been swept under the carpet? It just seems like an ongoing thing, and even after someone got killed up there, they never really fixed the problem,” Bennett said. “It was just all about the bottom dollar at that point.

Stringer was killed in January when a trench collapsed. According to records from the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office, Stringer was part of a three-person crew laying cable in a trench on a remote part of the project when one of his co-workers jumped into the trench to put a sleeve around a pipe. As he did so, the trench wall collapsed on him burying him under a foot to a foot-and-a-half of dirt.

Stringer and another worker jumped into the trench to rescue the worker, digging him out with their hands. As they did, another portion of the wall collapsed, burying Stringer. Other co-workers came to the trench and began to dig the two men out of the trench. Stringer died in the incident.

The trench had no shoring or support of any kind, the police report indicates.

As a result, the Department of Labor and Industries cited RES Americas System 3 LLC for eight violations and fined the company $360,874. L & I also cited RES Americans Construction Inc. for six violations in relation to Stringer’s death, and fined them $184,800, the department said in a press release.

“The willful violations are for not having cave-in protection, having no competent person trained on trench safety on site, and having no written safety program tailored to the project. Willful violations are the most serious. A willful violation can be issued when L&I has evidence of plain indifference, a substitution of judgment or intentional disregard of a hazard or rule,” L & I said in a release. “L&I found RES System 3 acted indifferently to the site hazards and the rules, including regularly disregarding their internal safety policies and procedures, promoting a work policy designed to circumvent the requirements of the code, and providing inadequate direction to a crew doing inherently dangerous work.”

RES System 3 was also cited for inadequate training, having no means of getting out of the trench, improper ladder use and setup and improper ladder extension.

“This incident is heartbreaking and frustrating,” said Anne Soiza, assistant director in charge of Labor and Industries’ Division of Occupational Safety and Health, in a statement. “This fatality and the hospitalization of a worker were completely preventable. Trenching at this depth in the dead of winter after days of rain, in unstable soil with no trench box, was a recipe for disaster.”

In a statement, RES said it was working with L & I during the investigation.

“We are heartbroken by the circumstances of this situation. RES fully cooperated with the Washington Department of Labor and Industries’ Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) during the course of this investigation. We strongly disagree with the alleged violations outlined in the citations, and will contest the citations in the appropriate regulatory framework… At this time, we are unable to provide further comment on pending civil litigation.”

The company would not comment on Bennett’s allegations because of pending litigation.

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