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Lawyer says worker was told to stay out of trench

Saturday, December 27, 2003

By Jonathan D. Silver, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A worker who was crushed to death in a trench collapse while excavating a faulty sewer line in his employer's McKees Rocks garage was warned by his boss to stay out of the pit, the company's attorney said yesterday.

"We suspect he might have gotten in because there was something he thought the backhoe wasn't delicate enough to do, but we don't know for sure," Downtown lawyer Templeton Smith said of William Steadman, 37, who died Dec. 15. "I know [the boss] had made the instruction to stay out of the trench."

Steadman was one of several employees at American Contracting Enterprises Inc. of McKees Rocks, an asbestos remediation firm, who offered to dig the trench for their boss, Dennis Jackson, according to Smith.

They were trying to track down the source of a stopped-up toilet by uncovering a sewer pipe.

Authorities at the scene said the trench did not have any safety features or supports typically used to shore up walls during such excavations.

Allegheny County homicide detectives and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration are investigating.

Steadman, a father of five, was from Beltzhoover. He had worked for Jackson off and on for about 15 years.

Smith could not provide any specifics about the conversation between Steadman and Jackson about staying out of the trench other than to say it took place the day before the collapse.

Workers at the small company were not specially trained in trench-digging. They were told to use the backhoe and to keep out of the trench. They did not express any concerns about safety, Smith said.

"I know that the workers were told when the trench started ... under no circumstances to go into the trench, " Smith said. "None of them were told, 'You go down and dig that trench.' ... Nobody was forced or coerced into doing it. That's not how this company works."

Excavation began gradually. But as workers in the garage off Chartiers Avenue continued probing, they discovered that the sewer pipe sloped downward and required an ever-deeper trench.

About 10 a.m. on Dec. 15, with the keys still in the backhoe, Steadman entered the trench with a hand tool. Three or four co-workers were nearby, but they were around a corner unloading a truck and could not see Steadman, Smith said.

Suddenly, the sides of the trench gave way, burying Steadman up to his shoulders.

"I understand they just went around the corner for a minute to do something, and they came back and there he was. When they went to get him out, he was still able to talk. They actually got down there with him and started digging him out," Smith said.

OSHA regulations state that trenches deeper than 5 feet should have bracing. But it is unclear what responsibility, if any, OSHA would ascribe to an employer who has told employees to stay clear of the pit.

Washington, D.C., attorney and OSHA expert Baruch Fellner said depending on the circumstances, the employer could be free of blame. It is, Fellner said, the "classic employee misconduct defense."

In other words, Fellner said, if an employee decided to disobey the explicit instruction of an employer, the employee could essentially be responsible for his own misfortune, even if the employer did not follow every OSHA regulation.

Those regulations, Fellner said, do not constitute strict liability. In legalese, that means responsibility does not automatically rest with the employer.

"Employers are not wholly and absolutely and irrevocably responsible for every violation of a specific standard," Fellner said.

Steadman's family has spoken to several attorneys, but has not yet retained one. It is not clear if the family intends to sue.

Chevonne Mott, 34, the mother of Steadman's children, said she was grateful to American Contracting Enterprises for covering Steadman's funeral expenses.

However, she said she was not happy about the apparent lack of safety procedures inside the trench.

"I am upset about that," Mott said. "The only thing I would like to say is they need to practice good safety precautions just so this doesn't happen again ... Unfortunately, it was a horrible accident."

Smith raised the possibility that paramedics who arrived at the scene ordered Steadman's co-workers out of the trench -- albeit for safety reasons -- too soon. Smith said that was the story he had gotten from Jackson.

Smith said the workers told paramedics, "'Just a few more minutes and we'll have him,' and they said, 'Get out now.' They argued, and they finally complied."

Smith was unsure if Steadman, who was partially dug out, was still alive when his co-workers exited the trench.

"I think the understanding was when they got out, the paramedics would take over the rescue right away," Smith said. However, he added that Steadman's body was not removed until hours later, after trench-stabilizing equipment had been brought in.

Chief David Gallagher of NorthWest EMS, which services McKees Rocks, Kennedy, and Stowe, declined to discuss the incident.

"I'd prefer not to comment because I think there's going to be some additional things investigated," Gallagher said.


Jonathan D. Silver can be reached at jsilver@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1962.

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