Trench Collapse Deaths Rising at an Alarming Rate in Arizona

Rudy Mori and Alex Quaresma were friends and coworkers. Alex was engaged and Rudy had worked for the trench-digging company for four months. They left in July. Digging a 10-foot trench to find a sewer line was their final step. It lacked safety measures. The trench collapsed into dirt. Coworkers rescued them. Alex and Rudy were buried alive. The state agency that investigates workplace injuries and fatalities found Construction Specification Solutions, their employer, violated safety laws.

Turnco was fined $8,000. Rudy’s younger sister Deanna Mori called it a slap on the wrist. Arizona’s worker-safety program protects 3 million workers. During former Gov. Doug Ducey’s eight years in office, the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health (ADOSH) prioritized company growth and profitability over safety violations. Unannounced inspections and fines decreased. The Arizona Republic investigated worker safety for over a year. It attended Industrial Commission of Arizona board meetings. It read thousands of pages of fatality and injury investigations, lawsuits, and state and federal program audits.

Workers, owners, lawyers, safety experts, and industry representatives were interviewed. The governor of Arizona strongly influences the workplace safety regulatory board. The governor appoints the Industrial Commission head and five commissioners. The commissioners appoint the ADOSH director, who hires inspectors and determines inspection frequency. 25 ADOSH inspectors worked for Ducey in 2015. 14. Commissioners report 15 and 6 actively recruiting. ADOSH has eight inspection technicians. Compliance inspections have dropped 54% since 2014 due to staffing shortages.

Fewer inspections mean fewer fines for lawbreakers. From $1.1 million in 2017, 2020 collected $505,800. The commission can assess worker’s compensation premiums annually to generate revenue. It could hire compliance staff with the money. Instead of raising revenues to hire staff, the commission cut the assessment in 2018, lowering revenues. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has repeatedly criticized Arizona for failing to impose adequate financial penalties on companies that break safety laws and for delaying the implementation of new federal safety standards. The feds threatened to revoke the state’s safety program in 2022. “This lengthy series of shortcomings in the Arizona program demonstrates fundamental deficiencies,” OSHA wrote last year.

Under Ducey, the number of Arizona workers injured or killed on the job increased steadily. 97 workers died in 2020, up from 69 in 2015. Private employer injuries rose from 54,100 to 59,800. Workplace injuries were lower here than nationally when Ducey took office. Arizona’s rate rose significantly above the national average between 2018 and 2020. Arizona workers were still more likely than Americans to get sick or injured on the job in 2021, despite a slight decrease. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 67 Arizona fatalities in 2021, but “case counts may be underrepresented” due to difficulties obtaining key source documents.

Arizona private employers have a higher rate of workplace injuries. Arizona’s rate exceeded the national average in 2018, 2019, and 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Arizona workplace deaths Workplace fatalities vary annually. But Arizona numbers are rising. 97 died in 2020. Most were men working for wages. Private sector deaths outnumbered government ones. A safety expert says fewer inspections and fewer financial penalties are bad for Arizona. “It’s basically a signal to the business community that health and safety compliance is not important,” said Peter Dooley, a Tucson-based certified industrial hygienist and safety professional who has studied ADOSH for over a decade.

The Industrial Commission acknowledges that inspections and penalties have dropped over the past eight years, but those metrics don’t account for the many ways ADOSH makes Arizona workplaces safer. The state now consults with businesses 1,200 times a year instead of 300. “We’re really proud of the positive impact that ADOSH has had for the state of Arizona and for every employer, every worker,” said James Ashley, Industrial Commission director appointed by Ducey in 2015. Ducey’s pro-business regulations boosted Arizona’s economy. His administration added over half a million private sector jobs. OSHA relations are tense.

The commission calls the federal takeover arbitrary and unfounded. The commission wrote to the feds that it “strongly disagrees” that Arizona’s worker-safety plan is less effective than OSHA. It emphasizes safety collaboration with industry groups and companies. Since becoming a commissioner in 2015, Commission Chairman Dale Schultz has prioritized business-industry collaboration. “To me, it’s always a balance,” he told ADOSH’s newer employees at a recent enforcement unit meeting. “I’ve always preferred consulting to practicing law.” He said fines and citations don’t measure ADOSH’s success.

Instead, he emphasizes how company-industry partnerships improve safety. The commission, unlike OSHA, does not issue press releases when disaster strikes. Due to the lack of public scrutiny, some companies ignore safety laws. ADOSH reports contain many preventable tragedies. In 2019, a citrus farm near Yuma killed a man from bee stings and injured nine others after the employer failed to inspect the field. Or the 2017 Goodyear construction site worker who died after falling through a skylight. Or the two men who died at an Avondale truck wash in 2021 after breathing in a hazardous chemical because the employer failed to train and assess hazards. Their families mourn.

Workplace fatalities occur unexpectedly, unlike long illnesses. Family members never leave without returning. A Tempe lumberyard forklift crushed 25-year-old Andreina Ramirez Cabrera in June. ADOSH found no safety violations at the company. Stephanie Soto, her sister, wants to know what happened. She thinks better lighting might have prevented the tragedy. “My worldview has changed. “It feels wrong,” Soto said. Few worker-safety board requirements The Industrial Commission of Arizona meets in a large auditorium at commission headquarters in downtown Phoenix several times a month. “The Spirit of Arizona,” a wall-size mural outside the auditorium, depicts Arizona’s past, present, and future with cowboys, saguaros, and hot-air balloons under a rainbow.

The governor and commissioners were photographed smiling in front of the mural in June 2018. Ducey held a framed mural copy. The commission administers and enforces workplace safety laws. Few attend its public meetings. It’s mostly commissioners, staff, and grim-faced company officials facing safety fines. The almost-empty room echoes their voices. The governor appoints and the Arizona Senate confirms five commissioners for five-year terms. The governor appoints the Industrial Commission director, and commissioners hire the ADOSH director. Commissioners have few requirements. Five years in Arizona is required. Three party members max. Labor or union representatives are optional on the commission. An upstairs conference room has mostly male commissioner photos.

Three Republicans, one independent, and one seat vacant since 2021 comprise the commission. Maricopa County’s safety-net health system Valleywise Health’s risk manager, Dale Schultz, is the chairman. In the 1970s, he interned for the director at the commission. The governor appoints the Industrial Commission director, not commissioners, according to an ethics expert interviewed by The Republic. Political pressure may result. “It strikes me as unusual that the board doesn’t have their own authority to hire their executive and then hold that person accountable,” said Santa Clara University Markkula Center for Applied Ethics senior scholar in government ethics John Pelissero.

The Republic’s questions and interview request were ignored by Ducey’s office. Katie Hobbs, the new governor, said her administration prioritizes workplace safety. “Every Arizonan deserves to go home safe from work,” she said. The Industrial Commission and ADOSH directors said they weren’t pressured by the governor’s office to ease up on companies. “Never,” said ADOSH Director Jessie Atencio. “My degree is in environmental, occupational health, and stuff. Fair and firm. We provide any education we can. It doesn’t absolve us of our duties.” Commission duties are numerous. Reviewing ADOSH fatality investigations is crucial. ADOSH investigates workplace fatalities to determine if the company violated safety laws. ADOSH oversees most Arizona private and public workplaces. However, other agencies investigate mine, reservation, and federal worker fatalities.

The commission cannot close companies. It can issue safety citations and fines. Each commission meeting hears one or two fatality reports. The ADOSH director summarizes fatality investigations and lists safety violations. Inadequate training and safety equipment are common violations. Companies often fail to prevent dangerous equipment like electric saws from starting unexpectedly, killing or injuring workers.

The commission heard about three deaths in November: A Casa Grande tile manufacturer worker died when a repaired electrical cord touched water. Another Gilbert home construction worker fell off a ladder and was impaled on uncapped rebar. The third worker at a Phoenix company that makes wooden pallets lost his footing and fell backward into a shutting-down electric saw. The saw needed guards. The ADOSH director informs the commission of safety violations and proposes fines in meetings. The commission can accept, modify, or reject recommendations.

The families of workers killed on the job sometimes attend commission meetings to hear the fatality investigation results. They are often searching for answers about what happened to their loved one. The families of Rudy Mori and Alex Quaresma did that after their trench deaths. Cave in—your guys are buried. Quaresma and Mori did not want trench work. They struggled to find work due to their felony records and prison time. One job was pipelayer. They were subcontractors to housing developers who installed underground utilities. Mori, 6 feet tall and 204 pounds, was fit. Shaved head, imposing. He ate cupcakes by the dozen. He went by “Butch” to avoid confusion with his father, Rudy. His time was generous. His three sisters said he would wash dishes and take out the trash without asking.

He removed his sister Jessica Mori’s popcorn ceiling for nine hours. Christie, his wife, had two stepchildren. Californian Quaresma moved to Arizona. He was engaged and divorced with two teens. He met Tara Macon at Walmart. They locked eyes while walking to her car. She moved. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’d love to exchange numbers.” His confidence convinced her. They lived a few blocks apart, making daily hangouts easy. They enjoyed hiking, antiquing, and roadside diners. They took road trips to Tucson for dinner. Quaresma appeared to be trying to regain his freedom. Quaresma proposed in June 2020 in Las Vegas. Macon was surprised when her chocolate cake dessert came with an engagement ring. He kneeled and proposed. On July 23, 2020, they got up as usual at 4 a.m. and kissed before he left for work. As usual, he sent her the West Valley housing development where he would work that day. They called later that morning. Fine.

The crew searched trenches for sewer pipes. If the contractor does not follow safety protocols, trenches are dangerous. Unexpected trench wall collapses can kill workers. No reaction time. Some dirt may seem harmless. A cubic yard of dirt can weigh 3,000 pounds—the same as a small car. When a trench collapses, thousands of pounds of dirt pin and kill the worker. Contractors must make trenches over 5 feet deep safe for workers. Contractors have several options: Trenches deeper than 5 feet can be sloped or protected with a steel trench box.

The last trench Quaresma and Mori entered that day had no safety features. The foreman thought they were working in “Type B” soil, but they were actually in “Type C” soil, a sandy mixture that collapses more easily. Two men working in a deep trench without protection were photographed by the foreman at 10:30 a.m. As noon approached, Quaresma and Mori used hand tools to dig for a sewer pipe in the trench. Walls crumbled. Soil flowed. Workers outside the trench called 911 and the crew’s absent foreman. “Cave in, your guys are buried,” one worker said.

The Phoenix Fire Department saw co-workers rescuing the men. They evacuated the trench to prevent another collapse. Quaresma died. Mori’s head was visible. Fewer inspections and enforcement ADOSH had not inspected Construction Specification Solutions in three years. Most workplaces go years without ADOSH inspections. State inspectors are scarce. The ADOSH website explains why it inspects fewer workplaces. Resources, it says. A compliance officer can only inspect so many times. More compliance officers would allow more inspections, making everyone happy. Maybe not everyone.” Safety experts and federal audits say Arizona has a particularly poor inspection record. The AFL-latest CIO’s “Death on the Job” report found 17 states with more inspectors than employees per 100,000.

Arizona had the highest inspector-to-worker ratio. The Industrial Commission responded that the ratio “seems to be dated.” “Arizona is one of the safer states in the nation to work,” the commission said, citing fatality and injury/illness rates. Arizona has been one of the 20 safest states for workplace fatalities for five years. Federal audits have chastised ADOSH for not inspecting more. The complaint-driven compliance unit is understaffed. Inspectors are scarce at ADOSH. A federal audit found that 13 compliance officers could conduct independent inspections in 2021, down to five.

Short staffing reduces Arizona workplace inspections and safety law enforcement. A federal audit found that ADOSH completed 486 compliance inspections in fiscal 2021, half of its goal. ADOSH emphasizes free workplace consultations despite fewer inspections. A company schedules these voluntary safety reviews. ADOSH then reports hazards. Fixing hazards doesn’t result in fines. Ashley, Industrial Commission director, said consultation visits prevent injuries. He increased consultation visits from 300 to 1,200 per year. The Industrial Commission says consultation reports aren’t public, unlike inspections. No matter if the same employer has a workplace injury or fatality.

The Republic requested a consultation report for a company that had a consultation visit in March 2022 and a workplace fatality three months later. ADOSH wrote to the company that the consultation report recommended hazard corrections. The company’s hazards and fixes were not public. The Republic wanted to know if the consultation visit hazards were linked to the workplace fatality. Without the report, the public cannot assess ADOSH oversight with voluntary inspections, the Republic argued.

ADOSH claimed it was following federal policy encouraging workplace consultation visits. ADOSH told The Republic that publishing the report would “chill” the consultation program and increase unsafe working conditions. Fewer inspections have reduced company fines. Financial penalties dropped from $1.1 million in fiscal 2017 to $505,800 in 2020. Companies are rarely fined more than the national average. According to a recent federal audit, Arizona’s serious penalties for large companies averaged $2,109, compared to $6,575 nationally. Tucson safety professional Peter Dooley has followed ADOSH for over a decade. He calls Arizona “lowball underachiever” in safety enforcement. He cites ADOSH’s “deplorable” record of not following up on workers’ complaints that their employers weren’t providing enough PPE during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dooley said workers desperately needed better protection. He said ADOSH either lacked capacity or motivation to respond. The Republic reported that ADOSH received over 300 COVID-19 safety complaints from March 2020 to March 2021 and issued only three pandemic-related citations. The Republic found that ADOSH closed about seven of eight cases without site visits, relying on employers’ compliance letters. Industrial Commission officials deny state misdirection. Critics are overlooking the agency’s safety program, which includes consultation visits, training, and industry partnerships.

They say financial penalties dropped because the agency couldn’t fill all inspector positions. ADOSH and other states have created a new “technician” position for applicants who were previously ineligible for inspector jobs to fill gaps. ADOSH officials said the new position requires chemistry or biology degrees, which are good for health and safety. Eight technicians had been hired since August, but none were ready to perform independent inspections by late December.

Rudy Mori’s family cried together across the construction site. His wife, three sisters, parents, and other relatives waited in near-triple-digit temperatures for the bodies. A local company lent the family a canopy, water cooler, and chairs. ADOSH inspectors interviewed witnesses and investigated safety violations. Suffocation and smothering caused their accidental deaths, according to a medical examiner. Mori’s family hoped the medical examiner’s scalp cuts meant he lost consciousness before dying. Last year, OSHA reported a “alarming rise” in trench deaths nationwide. After 22 trench-related deaths in the first six months of last year, OSHA increased enforcement. That exceeded the previous year’s 15 deaths. “Every one of these tragedies could have been prevented had employers complied with OSHA standards,” OSHA Assistant Secretary Doug Parker said in June.

OSHA instructed inspectors to conduct over 1,000 trench inspections for safety. OSHA also advised states like Arizona, which run their own worker-safety programs with OSHA’s permission, to consider criminal referrals to prosecutors for trench-related incidents. Arizona ADOSH inspectors can inspect unprotected trenches. Arizona had seven trench deaths since 2015. ADOSH conducted 393 trench inspections, 106 of which were safety complaints. ADOSH officials said they have not referred a work-related trench fatality to the Arizona Attorney General’s Office for criminal prosecution in recent memory. However, if necessary.

Construction Specification Solutions, where Mori and Quaresma worked, was fined by ADOSH for safety violations after their 2020 deaths. The ADOSH report found that the employer could have prevented the incident by installing a metal protective system or sloping the soil back to prevent cave-ins. The report also said the company failed to train workers on excavation hazards and safety. The foreman told ADOSH he wasn’t there when the trench collapsed. He said he had been in the trench when it was about 7 feet deep without a protective system and felt safe as long as someone was above watching workers below.

When the Industrial Commission discussed the fatalities in early 2021, company attorney Travis Vance said, “We certainly think this is a tragic situation, send condolences for the family.” We prioritize safety. He said the foreman told workers to stop digging and got them drinks because it was hot in July. The cave-in occurred without the foreman. He claimed he was not present when the trench reached its final depth.

Vance told commissioners the ADOSH trench measurements may have been taken after more dirt was removed in the recovery mission. He said the company had no knowledge of the conditions cited. Construction Specification Solutions wrote to ADOSH that it held a companywide trench safety retraining and safety discussion within days of the incident. Foreman took a 30-hour OSHA course. The Republic called the company and Vance, but neither responded. The company’s attorney, John Wittwer, said the litigation prevents comment.

The Republic had Robson Forensic civil engineer J. David Gardner review the ADOSH report. The accident was easily preventable, he said. He said the contractor ignored trench work safety standards. Construction Specification Solutions committed four “serious” ADOSH violations. ADOSH said the company failed to train workers and install a trench safety system. $20,000. However, federal OSHA allowed Construction Specification Solutions a discount. It received a 60% discount as a small company with 18 employees. The fine dropped to $8,000. “I don’t know,” Commissioner Joseph Hennelly Jr. said during the public meeting. “It all seems light.” He called the trench’s safety systems “a terrible oversight.” Kind.”

The commission voted unanimously. The discount fined Construction Specification Solutions $8,000. ADOSH researcher Dave Wells called the $8,000 fine “appallingly small.” Two died. Disturbing. “That was a major safety violation that killed them,” he said. Similar to Arizona, a trench accident in Missouri in 2022 killed one worker and earned the company four serious citations. $58,008. Arizona men’s families notice the disparity. Macon, engaged to Quaresma, called it a slap in the face. He enjoyed working. He died because he believed in the company and was there when needed. It’s discounted.” ADOSH officials told The Republic they would study the Missouri case to determine the higher fines. They said each fatality is unique. Safety violations affect fines.

OSHA: Arizona’s “history of shortcomings” Arizona is one of 22 states with OSHA-approved worker-safety programs for private, state, and local government employees. OSHA audits state safety programs, which must be “at least as effective” as federal ones. Arizona’s “history of shortcomings” is noted by OSHA. Last year, OSHA threatened to remove Arizona’s workplace safety authority. “Arizona has routinely failed to maintain its commitment to provide a program that is at least as effective as the Federal OSHA program in providing employee safety and health protection at covered workplaces,” the federal notice said. OSHA listed: Arizona was accused by OSHA of repeatedly delaying safety regulations.

Arizona took six years to match federal financial penalties. In 2012, Arizona violated OSHA’s fall protection standards for construction workers. Arizona required safety protection at 15 feet but OSHA at 5 feet. A 2014 state law matched federal standards. The Industrial Commission rejected OSHA’s emergency temporary COVID-19 health care worker standards in 2021. PPE and other safety standards were covered. Health care workers who contracted the virus would have received paid sick leave. Ducey called the federal takeover “a political stunt and desperate power grab.” The Industrial Commission responded with a 51-page letter to OSHA.

The commission accused OSHA of using “ill-defined” and “ever-shifting” standards to evaluate Arizona’s program. The commission wrote that OSHA believes State Plans must approve everything OSHA does. The Industrial Commission cited state law changes as the reason for delays in adopting federal standards. The commission also claimed the takeover threat was retaliation for not adopting COVID-19 health care worker standards.

Arizona businesses opposed a federal takeover of worker safety. Arizona Public Service, Salt River Project, several chambers of commerce, and construction and housing associations support OSHA. Unions and safety advocates favored the federal takeover. The federal takeover comment period ended. The Republic called and emailed OSHA for an update. In a December interview with The Republic, the Industrial Commission director expressed optimism that Arizona would benefit. Ashley said, “We expect this to be successfully, officially resolved very soon.”


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