Washington State Department of Labor & Industries has fined Vancouver-based Colf Construction $126,400 for violations the agency said could have led to potentially deadly trench cave-ins at the 10th Avenue Bridge project near Salmon Creek.
L&I’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health opened an investigation in March after receiving a referral, said spokesman Frank Ameduri, who did not identify the source of the referral.
“Basically it was a call that came in and somebody said, ‘Hey, I think they’re doing stuff that doesn’t look safe,’ ” Ameduri said.
The division conducted eight site visits at the 10th Avenue Bridge project between March and the end of August. It found violations on five of the visits. Colf, which has been involved in several high-profile projects in Clark County, is a bridge subcontractor.
On Sept. 11, the agency issued citations to Colf for three “willful serious” violations totaling $112,000 in penalties, and three “serious” violations totaling $14,400.
The three willful serious citations were for not ensuring that a protective system was in place to protect employees from trench cave-ins, not ensuring daily inspection of excavations and not removing employees from the hazardous area.
L&I regulations require protective systems for all trenches deeper than four feet. According to the citation forms, inspectors documented five instances in which various Colf Construction employees — including company owner Robert Colf — entered unprotected trenches ranging from 4 feet 7 inches to 14 feet in depth.
The three serious citations were for allowing employees to be underneath loads handled by lifting or digging equipment, not providing an appropriate fall-protection system and not ensuring that there were exit routes out of the trenches available within 25 feet of where employees were working.
Reached by phone, a Colf employee referred questions to company owner Robert Colf, who did not reply before The Columbian’s press deadline.
“Trenching and excavation incidents can happen suddenly, and cave-ins are often deadly,” Anne Soiza, L&I’s assistant director for its occupational safety division, said in a prepared statement. “This employer knew the dangers and had been warned before. Every employer that does trenching and excavation needs to know there are many complex deadly hazards that must be taken seriously and controlled. These hazards are a focus for the department and nationwide due to their high rate of worker fatalities.”
Colf specializes in landscaping, excavation and trenching work. The company has led or been involved in several projects in Clark County including the Ridgefield Outdoor Recreation Complex, the Fruit Valley Minit Mart, a C-Tran bus terminal at Vancouver Mall and a park at Frenchman’s Bar on the Columbia River.
Colf also was fined in October 2010 for trench safety violations, resulting in a $150 penalty. In that case, an employee worked in an unprotected trench 6 feet deep, Ameduri said. He added that the investigation was triggered when an L&I inspector happened to drive past the site and noticed the problem.
“When you have repeat violations, the fine increases,” Ameduri said.
Columbian archives include two other L&I-related incidents. In 1996, the company was fined $29,240 for violating safe working conditions in connection with a March 26 explosion that injured a welder. And in 1991, Colf was issued one willful and two general violations and fined $20,320 for violating safe trenching procedures — a fine that later was reduced to $550.
Colf has 15 business days to appeal the latest citations. Funding from citation payments is added to the worker’s compensation supplemental pension fund, which helps injured workers and the families of workers who have died on the job.
The Clark County 10th Avenue project will add a bridge across Whipple Creek just west of Interstate 5, connecting 10th Avenue, which previously dead-ended on opposite sides of the creek. The project will also widen 10th Avenue between northeast 154th and 164th streets.
Construction began in mid-2017 and is scheduled to finish this fall. According to Clark County’s website, the project should improve traffic circulation in the area and provide an alternate route to the Clark County Fairgrounds, which is located on 10th Avenue north of the bridge site.