When the state wanted to fine Paul Keck $21,900 over the death of one of his employees, Keck figured it meant the end of his septic installation and grading company.
“I was sweating marbles,” he recalled of his hearing last month before the state Department of Labor and Industries, which investigates workplace deaths.
“I thought they’d just hammer me into the ground. My wife and I were prepared to sell off everything and give up self-employment” to pay the fine.
Instead, state regulators came up with an innovative solution: a reduced fine, and Keck’s agreement to speak publicly about the dangers of drinking and driving.
The state’s case stemmed from an incident last July, when Keck and one of his employees, Jim Bryant, went drinking after two long, hot days of hard work.
“A cold beer sounded really good,” Keck said.
Several beers later, “we just headed back (toward Keck’s home). Jim hopped in the dump truck” and drove off.
But the truck crashed, and Bryant, 30, was killed. Tests showed he had a blood-alcohol level of .10 percent, the state’s legal standard for drunken driving.
Bryant was off the job when he drank the beers. But the state ruled he was working when he drove the company truck, and that since Keck was aware Bryant had been drinking, Keck was liable for a “willful” safety violation.
When Keck, 40, and his wife went to the hearing before L&I;, they took financial records to show the company couldn’t pay the recommended fine without selling off equipment and effectively putting them out of business.
The L&I; officials examined the records, then conferred privately.
When they came back, they offered to reduce the fine to $5,500 if Keck would help warn other employers about the dangers of drinking on the job.
“I was really surprised,” Keck said. “I had tears in my eyes. I almost cried.”
As a result, Keck will speak at contractors’ conferences and will be featured in an L&I; newsletter for contractors.
Keck said he will describe the experience of nearly losing his business, and talk about the danger of having an employee go back to work after drinking.
He also will describe his sense of personal loss, since Bryant was a friend as well as an employee.
While Keck’s settlement is unusual, it is not unique. After two workers were killed in a 1994 crane accident in the Kingdome, a settlement with several crane owners included education about safer crane operation, L&I; spokesman Bill Ripple said.
“We try to be as creative as possible,” Ripple said. “We’re not in the business of creating revenue, but in creating a safer workplace.”