State workplace regulators are issuing tens of thousands of dollars in fines against two private contractors that employed men who were killed and seriously injured working the costliest wildfire in U.S. history.
California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) is handing down five citations to Czirban Concrete Construction, a small Coarsegold (Madera County) firm that employed Robert Reagan.
The 35-year-old resident from the Fresno County town of Friant died July 26, 2016, four days after the Soberanes Fire began. The bulldozer he was operating near Big Sur tipped over on a steep embankment and pinned him to the ground, marking the first bulldozer operator fatality in a California wildfire in nearly nine years.
The agency is also penalizing Groveland-based (Tuolumne County) Industrial Defense Development, which employed 60-year-old John Tiersma. He suffered serious injuries when the water tender he was operating rolled over and down a hill on Sept. 11, 2016.
Safety Questions Over Private Contractors
The companies are just two of the many firms Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service contracted with in the Soberanes Fire, a practice the agencies employ for large conflagrations.
Cal/OSHA’s investigations point to a lack of training on the part of private contractors pulled in to work the state’s largest blazes, according to an expert on heavy equipment and construction site injuries.
“The number of people that they’re relying on, that are not really in the industry of firefighting, that they’re expecting and relying on to provide them services, seems like a recipe for disaster,” said Craig Peters, a lawyer with the San Francisco-based Veen Firm.
Peters represented the relatives of Matthew Will, who died after his bulldozer rolled over on Oct. 8, 2007, an incident that led to a lawsuit against the bulldozer manufacturer Caterpillar Inc.
Cal Fire disputes the idea that its private contract workers aren’t well trained on safety issues.
The agency requires the people it hires to operate heavy equipment to take an annual course focusing on fire-line safety, according to Cal Fire spokeswoman Janet Upton.
“Fire-line supervisors and managers are concerned for the safety and well-being of not only hired equipment vendors, but local, state and federal firefighters and law enforcement officers assigned to these types of emergencies as well as the affected public,” Upton said in an email Monday. “The risks on large, complex emergencies like the Soberanes Fire, and means to reduce risk, are conveyed daily through in-person operational briefings and written incident action plans.”
Workers Lacked Coverage
Reagan and Tiersma were not covered by workers’ compensation insurance, Cal/OSHA’s reports concluded.
In the weeks after Reagan’s death, Cal Fire pulled his employer, Czirban Concrete Construction, from its rotation of as-needed contractors after learning that it might not have been providing the coverage to its workers.
The company is still not listed on the agency’s Hired Equipment vendor list, said Upton.
KQED revealed in August that Czirban had its license suspended eight times by the Contractors State License Board in four years for a set of violations, many of them tied to workers’ comp problems.
Dozer Fatality Tied to Lack of Seat Belt
Cal/OSHA issued $20,000 in fines against Czirban for five workplace violations. The largest, for $13,500, was because Czirban failed to make sure Reagan was wearing a seat belt.
“As a result, the employee received fatal injuries when the bulldozer rolled over,” the Cal/OSHA citation stated.
That correlates with a preliminary Cal Fire report that found that Reagan was ejected from the bulldozer as it tipped over on a steep embankment, that agency’s investigators said, possibly because he wasn’t wearing a seat belt.
Cal Fire said that Reagan died nearly instantly after being pinned to the ground as the bulldozer turned over.
New Information on Water Tender Injury
While Czirban’s contract was with Cal Fire, Industrial Defense Development was working for the U.S. Forest Service.
Cal/OSHA has issued $6,000 in fines against that firm. Its largest fine was for not reporting the injury to the agency.
The Forest Service has revealed very little about the water tender rollover that injured Tiersma. Six months after the incident the federal agency has yet to close its investigation, according to Deborah McKelvy, a staff assistant at the federal agency’s Law Enforcement and Investigations unit.
So, the state’s report provides some of the first details about the crash.
Tiersma was ejected from the cab of the water tender as it rolled over and down a hillside embankment. The crash broke his ribs and one of his shoulder blades as well as bruising his spleen.
The Forest Service notified Cal/OSHA four days after the incident, and Scott Harvey, president of Industrial Defense Development, has yet to speak with investigators for each of the agencies.
The two contractors can either pay the fines or appeal them. So far they haven’t done either, according to Cal/OSHA spokesman Frank Polizzi.
Harvey and Ian Czirban, who runs Czirban Concrete Construction, have not returned calls for comment.
The Soberanes Fire burned for several months, charring more than 132,000 acres. Investigators say it was ignited by an illegal campfire on July 22.