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Contractor fined, Colorado Springs Utilities reproved over safety in two deaths

'Corrective action'


Kumar & Associates received an OSHA fine related to the fatal 2018 accident. - COURTESY SAM MASIAS
  • Courtesy Sam Masias
  • Kumar & Associates received an OSHA fine related to the fatal 2018 accident.

When two young men lost their lives at a job site working for Colorado Springs Utilities in 2018, it seemed like an unfortunate mistake that their drilling rig came in contact with a high-voltage power line.

But the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) saw it differently. The federal workplace watchdog agency slapped the contractor for which the small operation was working with a monetary fine and, on the same day, issued a two-page letter outlining how CSU might prevent such tragedies in the future.

OSHA lacks authority to impose penalties on city, county and state governments, but the letter outlined 10 steps CSU could take to keep their contractors safer.

Those findings are contained in documents recently released under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request submitted by a local electrical contractor and given to the Indy.

CSU didn’t provide a comment on the OSHA letter, saying all personnel who otherwise could respond had been assigned to concentrate on the coronavirus pandemic.

A spokesperson for the contractor, Kumar & Associates, declined to comment except to say the penalty is the first in its 31-year history.

On May 10, 2018, Joseph Sampedro, 24, owner of Joe’s Drilling LLC, and his employee Benjamin Hey, 25, were drilling for soil samples as a subcontractor for Kumar near the Ray Nixon Power Plant south of Colorado Springs. The men were drilling for soil samples to be used in percolation testing for a possible new leach field at Clear Springs Ranch, which serves a number of purposes for CSU, including as a disposal site for certain waste materials.

A CSU report on the incident said Obering-Worth Associates was preparing a proposal for the utility and had hired Kumar to conduct soil drilling. Kumar, in turn, contracted with Joe’s Drilling.

Both men were electrocuted when the boom hit an overhead electrical line, which sparked a fire that engulfed their truck. The power lines carried 12,500 volts and were live when help arrived from Fountain and Colorado Springs fire departments, according to OSHA’s report. A Kumar employee at the job site wasn’t injured.

“The drilling rig on site was located in a field almost directly under electrical power lines,” the report said.

OSHA’s subsequent investigation showed that Kumar “did not ensure their employee as well as the two employees of Joe’s Drilling LLC were protected from electrical hazards... .” Joe’s Drilling has since shut down.

OSHA levied a civil penalty of $11,641 for a “serious” violation against Kumar for permitting employees to work near electric power circuits and failing to protect them against electric shock by de-energizing and grounding the circuits or taking other protective steps, the OSHA citation states.

Nor did Kumar advise their employee and Sampedro and Hey of the hazards involved with the high-voltage power line located directly above the drilling location.

Though the fine was near the maximum allowed under OSHA rules, OSHA noted the penalty is “in no way a measurement of the magnitude of the death that has occurred.”

Two men were electrocuted when their boom hit an overhead electrical line. - COLORADO SPRINGS UTILITIES
  • Colorado Springs Utilities
  • Two men were electrocuted when their boom hit an overhead electrical line.
In a Sept. 19, 2018, letter to CSU, the federal agency noted it cannot cite state or local governments but can recommend “prompt corrective action to reduce employee exposure or eliminate it completely.”

Among the recommendations:

• Review policies for all contractors who work at CSU sites to ensure hazards have been identified and abated.
• Ensure contractors hire subcontractors qualified to perform work safely.
• Ensure all contractors have appropriate safety training for the work they’re performing.
• Conduct pre-work safety meetings and include CSU employees associated with the project.
• Train CSU employees involved in contract work to identify hazards, including overhead lines.
• Ensure a job hazard analysis has been completed prior to work being conducted.
• Participate in a site safety inspection to identify potential hazards before work begins.
• Advise contractors working in areas of high voltage lines of the hazards involved.
• Provide “some level” of safety oversight for all work at its facilities and on its property.
• Consider placing signs near overhead lines to warn workers of hazards.

CSU’s report noted that although a CSU project manager walked the site with a Kumar employee the week before the incident so Kumar could identify locations for the drilling to occur, “There was no conversation by either employee regarding the location of the stakes used to mark boring locations or the overhead power lines.”

All of this comes to light thanks to Sam Masias, a master electrician in Colorado Springs, who obtained paperwork related to the incident through FOIA and Colorado Open Records Act requests.

Asked why he did so, he says, “Because two people were killed, and I couldn’t understand how that could happen on a power plant [site].

“When I work with Colorado Springs Utilities in the field, they’re extraordinarily safety conscious,” he adds. “I just couldn’t understand. How can you take an iron drilling rig onto the property and stand it up without someone saying, ‘Where are you going?’ It was beyond my comprehension.”

The Indy could find no lawsuits filed as a result of the deaths in either federal or state court.

The El Paso County Coroner’s Office’s autopsy reports show that both men’s bodies tested positive for opioids and THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana. But it’s impossible to know if either man was impaired based on post-mortem tests at the levels shown during autopsy, Coroner Dr. Leon Kelly says via email.

One of the men, Kelly says, had a very low level of oxycodone, which likely wouldn’t have caused impairment. The other was “relatively high,” but Kelly says his impairment would depend on his typical dosage and how long he’d used the drug. Without that information, “It’s hard to determine impairment,” he says.

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