Baltimore Sun Op-Ed: Baltimore Employer of Smothered Worker Should Be Held Criminally Accountable

by Rena Steinzor

June 12, 2018

This op-ed originally ran in the Baltimore Sun.

On June 5, a 19-year-old construction worker named Kyle Hancock was smothered to death when a deep trench where he was working collapsed. R.F. Warder Inc., the construction company that hired Hancock to help fix a leaking sewage pipe, and the bosses it employed are responsible for his death, plain and simple. Their failure to shore the trench to prevent a collapse was grossly negligent, readily foreseeable, eminently preventable and, therefore, criminal.

The scene of the incident was gruesome. To recover Hancock's body, emergency responders from the Baltimore Fire Department first shored the trench to protect themselves and then worked painstakingly until 1:30 a.m., digging with hand shovels 20 feet down. Before they began the rescue effort, they had to order two other workers out of the hole. We can assume from this fact that Hancock was not an isolated employee who acted recklessly. Rather, had the company provided even rudimentary safety training to its employees, supervisors would have known better than to allow more men to risk their lives after Hancock was buried alive.

In fact, trench collapses have been well-known hazards since Roman times. Regulations written by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have made it illegal to dig a trench deeper than five feet without precautions like shoring.

Maryland regulators say they are investigating the fatal incident. But they have a dismal track record. Case in point: The Maryland Occupational Safety and Health division (MOSH) investigated a similar incident in Prince George's County last summer and settled with the employer for $2,200. That kind of penalty is not even a slap on the wrist and does nothing to deter future malfeasance, serious injuries and deaths.

Stopping this kind of gross negligence requires far more severe punishment. The best way to achieve justice in this case and to deter other companies in the construction industry from endangering lives while pinching pennies is to prosecute those responsible.

Read the full op-ed on the Baltimore Sun website.

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Also from Rena Steinzor

Rena Steinzor is a Professor of Law at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, and a past president of the Center for Progressive Reform. She is the author of Why Not Jail? Industrial Catastrophes, Corporate Malfeasance, and Government Inaction.

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