The city of Columbia is facing $12,000 in potential fines after an investigation into a utility worker’s death earlier this year.
The state Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) said 31-year-old Marvis Myers suffocated on February 6 after an open sewer line trench caved in as he worked inside it. A City of Columbia Utilities crew had been making repairs to the line at the time just outside downtown.
OSHA last week announced at least six “serious” violations at the worksite that inspectors said created unsafe working conditions. The inspectors said a backhoe digging out a six-feet-deep trench had been placing the dirt (spoil) right next to the trench, and not two feet back from the edge as state safety regulations require. The report also said the site also had no retaining devices to prevent the spoil from falling back into the trench.
The report said Myers, a married father of two, was using a shovel to spread out gravel stone under the cracked sewer line at the intersection of Pulaski and College streets. He was walking to a ladder at the edge of the trench when the side caved in, pinning him to the opposite wall. A four-pinch thick piece of asphalt also crashed onto his back. OSHA said Myers was trapped for 25 minutes as hundreds of pounds of spoil piled up to his chest.
The findings cited the Utilities Department for supervisors not recognizing the potentially hazardous situation (known as the “competent person” rule). The agency was also cited for failing to test for a safe level of oxygen in any excavation more than four feet deep, as state regulations require.
Columbia’s Public Safety department was fined for two additional violations. OSHA inspectors said the department should have recognized the lack of precautions utility workers were taking by not testing oxygen levels or properly stabilizing the edge of the trench.
In all, the city utilities department faces $10,000 in total fines for four total violations, while the public safety department faces $2,000 for two counts. The city will be able to argue its case and attempt to reach a settlement during an “informal conference” scheduled for a later date. The fine could also be appealed to the state Administrative Law Court.
A Columbia spokeswoman directed all questions about the findings to city Human Resources Director Pamela Benjamin. Benjamin said in an email to South Carolina Radio Network that “the process is still ongoing” and she could not comment further at this time. She also would not say if any city employees had been terminated due to the violations.
An OSHA spokeswoman said the case is not being turned over for any kind of criminal investigation.