Construction firm fined $560K after Anchorage worker's death in trench

A construction company has been fined in connection with the June death of an employee who was allegedly mangled by workers trying to rescue him from a collapsed trench in South Anchorage.

In a Wednesday statement, the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development said 23-year-old Samuel Morgan had been laying sewer pipe with a Hartman Construction crew. Emergency responders were called to the job site, near 91st Avenue and King Street, after the trench -- roughly 7 feet deep and 15 feet across -- failed on the afternoon of June 16.

"Mr. Morgan was in the trench when an unguarded wall sloughed off and buried him to the waist," state officials wrote. "David Hartman, a partial owner of the company, and other employees tried to free Mr. Morgan from the collapsed trench using two excavators and fatally injured him in the process. The state medical examiner determined that Mr. Morgan's injuries resulted from being struck by construction equipment."

Afterward, officials issued a series of guidelines on work in trenches to construction firms statewide while refusing to comment on the circumstances surrounding Morgan's death. On Wednesday, however, the state accused Hartman Construction of failing to provide a safe workplace, fining the firm a total of $560,000 for "its willful failure to adhere to safety standards."

"Other safety violations included failure to provide adequate access and egress from the trench, failure to protect employees from loose rock and soil, failure to properly locate spoil piles, failure to use a protective system in the excavation, and failure to properly bench or slope the excavation," state officials wrote. "Prior to the fatality, the employer identified a section of the trench wall that had sloughed off and marked the area with traffic cones, yet the protective trench box at the site was not assembled to allow for its use and there were no ladders at the site for safe trench access at the time of the incident."

Heidi Drygas, the commissioner of the Department of Labor, said the steep fines -- the maximum allowable under state law -- were meant to serve notice against future safety infractions in the construction field.

"My heart goes out to the family of Samuel Morgan. This avoidable tragedy deserves the full attention of every employer in the construction industry," Drygas said in Wednesday's statement. "Every employer who has ever thought about cutting corners on safety should view this case as a severe warning that failure to provide the necessary and adequate protections for Alaska's workers will not be tolerated."

Grey Mitchell, the department's director of labor standards and safety, said Wednesday afternoon that his office was in contact with the state Department of Law's Criminal Division regarding potential charges in the case. He deferred to them on whether a criminal case in Morgan's death was possible, noting that the state has a two-year statute of limitations to bring charges in the case.

The department's investigation didn't find any prior incidents involving Hartman Construction listed with OSHA officials, Mitchell said, so "we didn't have a pattern to go with" involving earlier offenses, but the investigation indicated major issues within the company.

"We found that the employer -- and specifically, David Hartman -- acted with plain indifference toward the occupational safety and health standards," Mitchell said. "He really had a lack of will in terms of effort toward complying, and a degree of knowledge in regards to trenching work and the hazards of the site itself, that dictated he should have had some safeguards in place. But he didn't; he ignored them."

Mitchell emphasized that the Department of Labor's findings are still only allegations made by the state. He said the company has 15 days from the issue of the citations to request an informal conference over the fines, contest them, or do nothing -- a step which would formalize the department's findings, but also open them to appeal in state Superior Court.

Mitchell said the department also has the option to monitor Hartman Construction under the Severe Violator Enforcement Program, which would allow it to track the company's future contracts.

"We would be watching for any projects that they might be working on," Mitchell said.

Mitchell expressed his sympathies to Morgan's widow, Cassie Morgan. She told Alaska Dispatch News in June that the incident had taken a man she called "a loving husband, a kind friend of all and an honest, hardworking man of his word."

"It's really a horrible accident, and you have to feel sorry for Samuel Morgan's wife and his family that are having to go through this whole process again," Mitchell said. "I just hope they're getting some comfort from knowing the state's completed its investigation, and that we've found the violations we have."

Hartman Construction wasn't immediately available for comment by phone Wednesday.

Chris Klint

Chris Klint is a former ADN reporter who covered breaking news.