An Anchorage contractor has been fined more than a quarter of a million dollars for "willful" violations of Alaska's labor laws in the September death of a worker crushed by a collapsing wall during demolition work in Spenard, state officials said Tuesday.
The state Department of Labor and Workforce Development on Tuesday announced the $280,000 fine, along with four citations, against North Country Services in the Sept. 30 death of 24-year-old Nicholson Tinker. According to a Tuesday release from the department, Tinker died when "a concrete retaining wall he was preparing for demolition collapsed."
Anchorage police said the collapse occurred while Tinker had been working at a fourplex on the 1500 block of West 40th Avenue, off Minnesota Drive near Spenard Road.
A message left requesting comment from North Country wasn't immediately returned Tuesday.
North Country can appeal the fines to the state Occupational Safety and Health Review Board, then take the case to state Superior Court. The company can also meet with state officials to negotiate a settlement, or opt to take no action.
Among the first to respond to Tinker's death was the Municipality of Anchorage's chief structural inspector, Mitch Blackburn. He said firefighters called him to the scene to assess the risk of further collapse from the 6 1/2-foot-high retaining wall, which had been holding back an earthen berm near the two-story building.
Blackburn said he saw Tinker's body in "a pile of debris" from the collapse. At the time, Blackburn said, a stairway in front of the damaged wall was being removed for repair work on the wall itself.
"The only thing that was holding it back was the stairway, and upon the demolition of the stairway the material collapsed on the workmen who were conducting the work," Blackburn said. "Apparently, when they removed the last of the stair structural members that were holding up the stairway, the wall had a simultaneous failure."
The department said North Country owner Mark Welty had not conducted a required engineering survey of the demolition site to determine the risk of collapse.
"The department also determined that Mr. Welty failed to ensure the structure was braced or stabilized against such a collapse despite clear indications the wall was damaged," state officials wrote. "Furthermore, Mr. Welty provided no safety training or instructions to his employees."
Deborah Kelly, director of the department's Labor Standards and Safety Division, said Tinker might still be alive if North Country had done an engineering survey and followed up to conduct the demolition work safely.
"That survey has to take into account the risk of a collapse; it's a major safety precaution intended to prevent a death such as this one," Kelly said. "Once that engineering survey is done, you have to take measures to make sure you won't have an unexpected, unplanned collapse — so you've got to have some bracing and shoring done."
In addition to the state fines, Kelly said the municipality had fined North Country for conducting the demolition work before local authorities had issued a permit. Details on that fine weren't immediately available from local code-enforcement officials Tuesday.
Rob Henderson at the state Office of Special Prosecutions said no criminal charges in connection with Tinker's death had been referred to his office as of Tuesday.
"That may change," he said, if the state department relays information that would support such charges.
The state said Welty had also inaccurately classified workers at the site as independent contractors, allowing him to avoid payments for their taxes, unemployment insurance and workers' compensation premiums.
Kelly said the misclassification of both North Country workers at the site was a significant factor in the case.
"One of the major issues in this case that (Welty) was hiring these young men and calling them independent contractors and not providing them any safety training at all, and not doing his due diligence with regard to them," Kelly said. "These employees had no construction experience, no training, no preparation."
According to Rhonda Gerharz, an investigator with the department's Workers' Compensation Division, misclassified employees are a nationwide issue she sees on a regular basis, but no statewide survey has been conducted to assess the full extent of the problem in Alaska.
"It's rampant in Alaska, and it's rampant in the construction industry," Gerharz said.
Kelly said Tinker had been considered a contractor during at least two years of on-and-off work for North Country. In addition, she said, Welty hasn't listed any employees for his business since at least 2000.
"Through our investigation, it appeared Mr. Welty had a common practice of hiring young men like this and not classifying them as employees over at least the past couple years," Kelly said. "Mr. Welty made it very clear that he did not think these people should be classified as employees."
Although the state can levy steep fines in cases involving willful violations by employers, Kelly said the state doesn't have much regulatory authority to prevent future violations.
"We can tell a guy to stop misclassifying workers, but that doesn't stop him from actually doing it," Kelly said. "I would argue that the willful citations — and hopefully these sanctions — are an effective deterrent."
In the long term, Gerharz said, employers who don't properly classify employees face greater risks than rewards.
"They save 30 percent in overhead by not being in compliance with labor statutes," Gerharz said. "But then something like this happens and it puts them out of business, and it's not worth it — it's really not worth it."