Firm: Hole in Worker’s Boot a Factor in University of Iowa Death

By RYAN J. FOLEY | August 18, 2011

Numerous safety violations contributed to the death of a construction worker crushed by a falling steel beam on the University of Iowa campus, but regulators reduced a fine after his company argued that he might not have been there if he’d worn better footwear, records show.

Iowa Bridge and Culvert said during a settlement conference in April that Kevin Hammons kept working beneath a beam while workers above used a crane to drop sand because he had a hole in his boots and did not want to walk through water to get out, according to Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration records released this week to The Associated Press under the open records law.

Hammons died on Jan. 24 when the weight of the sand apparently caused a support system holding the beam, which was improperly secured in several key ways, to fail and the beam to fall and pin him beneath. A second beam fell and hit another employee in the head, but he was not injured.

Iowa Bridge and Culvert had been hired as a subcontractor to build a pumping station that would help protect UI’s Art Building West, which has been closed since a flood in 2008, from future water damage. Hammons, 52, of Washington, Iowa, died along the shore of a pond near the building.

State regulators launched an investigation after his death and then proposed a fine of $20,000 after finding six serious safety violations. They found that only two wire rope clips were used to secure cable holding the beams when at least four should have been required, clips holding other beams were installed incorrectly and the beams’ support systems deviated from the engineer’s design, records show.

Employees on the scene said they never had training on the proper installation but using two clips was “the way they had always done it,” according to an IOSH narrative. Two company executives also agreed “it was obvious” the support system failed and “that there should have been more clips in place and installed properly,” the report said.

At the April 7 conference, the Washington, Iowa-based firm praised the safety inspector’s work and noted that it had taken steps to correct those problems, records show. But then the company turned the focus to the deceased employee and asked regulators to reduce their fine by $10,000 by grouping several of the fines together.

“Victim had a hole in his boots, did not want to walk through water, so he stayed under the beam,” Tom VanderLinden, the executive officer of Iowa Occupational Safety and Health, jotted in his notes for the meeting, where he agreed to a settlement reducing the fine from $20,000 to $14,000.

VanderLinden said Tuesday he agreed to reduce the fine, as is common in such cases, to avoid the prospect of costly litigation with the company. He said he did not believe the company’s argument about the hole in Hammons’ boots was much of a factor.

“We could almost say that was a silly reason to say,” he said. “It was a comment made by the employer ….I won’t comment on what they were thinking.”

“There were clearly safety violations and the company knew that, accepted that. The fact was, unfortunately there was someone beneath that beam. It still would have been a safety hazard if someone wasn’t beneath that beam. That’s what OSHA has to look at. Ultimately we are looking at the safety hazard itself.”

Company Vice President Brian Uitermarkt said Tuesday the firm was not trying to blame Hammons and was simply highlighting what Hammons’ co-workers said during the safety investigation. He said interviews with witnesses showed that a co-worker had warned him to get out from underneath the beam but Hammons refused because he wanted to avoid the ankle-deep water.

“He didn’t want to go out from under there because he had a hole in his boot and he didn’t want to walk through the water to get his foot wet,” he said. “That wasn’t something our company management knew about at the time of the accident. It came up in the course of OSHA’s investigation.”

Employees who were interviewed all refused to give the agency the consent to disclose what they said to investigators. More than 270 pages related to the investigation released to the AP make no other mention of Hammons’ footwear.

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