L&I fines contractor in Renton fatal trench collapse last year

Company faces fines of more than $400,000 for safety violations that led to death of Surjit Gill, 36

AAA Contractors Inc., of Kent, faces more than $400,000 in fines for safety violations that led to the death of a construction worker in September 2022 in Renton.

Surjit Gill, 36, was killed when the dirt walls of the trench he was working in collapsed and buried him.

The state Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) has cited AAA Contractors Inc. for three willful and one serious violation in connection with the incident. The company was also cited for several general violations. The fines total $437,581, according to a Feb. 14 L&I news release.

L&I inspectors determined Gill had been working in a trench 18 to 20 feet deep at a new housing development near Northeast 38th Street and Lincoln Avenue Northeast. No one had inspected the trench for safety before the worker entered, and the shields installed were inadequate for the soil type and depth, according to the news release. Employees inside the trench also did not have a safe way of getting out.

“One cubic yard of soil can weigh more than a car,” said Craig Blackwood, assistant director for L&I’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health. “Dirt walls can collapse suddenly and without any warning. That’s why there are safety rules in place. The requirements are well known by employers in the industry, and effective when followed. Mr. Gill should still be alive today.”

Nearly 60 first responders were on the call, according to the Renton Regional Fire Authority. It took about eight hours to recover Gill’s body as a rescue operation changed to a recovery operation when a first responder discover Gill had no pulse.

Deaths on the rise

Excavation and trenching are among the most hazardous construction jobs, and the danger is growing. Excavation incidents killed 35 workers across the U.S. in 2022 — more than double the 15 workers killed in 2021, according to the news release. In Washington, in addition to Gill, two men were killed in a trench collapse at a backyard construction site in Shoreline in July 2022.

In addition, Alki Construction owner Phillip Numrich was sentenced in March 2022 to 45 days in jail for his role in a 2016 trench collapse in West Seattle.

Because of the continuing incidence of trench collapses, L&I began to participate in a national enforcement program in December 2022 allowing for an increased enforcement presence at excavation work sites.

“Our compliance safety and health officers are initiating inspections when they see an open trench 4 feet deep or more, so we check the trenches we come across for safety,” said Blackwood. “We hope this increased scrutiny will save lives.”

Blackwood said when L&I inspectors arrived at the Renton site, they found the trench box designed to hold back the soil was 4 feet shorter than the top of the trench. Another trench box was found on site, not being used. Inspectors said if AAA Contractors had stacked that box on top of the other one, the cave-in might have been prevented.

They also found two ladder sections had been tied together with rope, which is not permitted, and still did not make the ladder tall enough to extend the required 3 feet above the trench, according to the news release. Also, the ladder side rails and rungs were damaged and it should not have been used.

Along with the willful and serious violations, AAA was also cited for several general violations including not having a first-aid certified person on site, the supervisor or person in charge was not first-aid certified, and there were no documented walk-around safety inspections.

A severe violator

A willful violation is cited when a business owner or contractor intentionally ignores a hazard or rule. A serious violation is cited when a worker is exposed to hazard that can cause injury or death.

AAA Contractors has been identified as a severe violator and is now subject to greater scrutiny, according to L&I. The company has filed an appeal.

Penalty money paid in connection with a citation is placed in the workers’ compensation supplemental pension fund, helping workers and families of those who have died on the job.