Chuck Eller was praised as a hero for pulling handfuls of sandy soil away from a buried co-worker May 4 and possibly saving the man’s life.
Now his company, Eller Construction, has been fined $48,000 by the state Department of Labor and Industries for the construction cave-in.
The company was cited for willfully violating the Washington Industrial Safety and Health Act because of the accident and the company’s safety history, according to Labor and Industries. A willful violation is the most serious violation of the act. Only about two or three are issued each year in the Spokane region.
“Folks make mistakes, and they need to be corrected,” said Rich Ervin, regional compliance manager for Labor and Industries. “‘Willful’ implies they have knowledge, and didn’t correct it anyway.”
Eller Construction has appealed the fine and the decision. No one from the company was available Wednesday for comment.
The cave-in happened on U.S. Highway 395, just south of Regina. Eller is the main contractor on the county’s $9 million North Spokane Sewer Interceptor, which connects the existing sewer to new developments north of the Little Spokane River.
The crew had been working on the project almost a month, when the sandy walls of the sloping hole crashed in on the workers. Eller and two other workers were standing when the cave-in occurred. Virgil Rose was crouched with his legs underneath a trench box - a metal box that’s designed to guard against cave-ins.
Eller was partially buried. Rose was buried for about five minutes before rescuers, including Eller, cleared soil away from his head. Rose survived.
The company was fined for not properly protecting workers from a cave-in.
“You don’t want to engineer the excavation so that the banks of the slopes are going to give away too readily,” Ervin said.
The hole was deep - about 30 feet. And the sides of the ditch were too steep, Ervin said.
The accident isn’t the only problem in Eller Construction’s history. Ervin said an accident was reported to Labor and Industries in August 1994, when another Eller worker was injured in a cave-in. That worker said he was injured in the back when he tried to jump to avoid being buried, Ervin said.
A formal hearing will be held on Eller’s appeal in front of the Board of Insurance Appeals. Within 60 days, the board probably will schedule a hearing.