OSHA issues "Serious" and "Willfull" violation notices to USFS over rappelling fatality

On July 21, 2009 Thomas Marovich, 20, of Hayward California incurred fatal injuries when he fell while performing routine rappel proficiency skill training at the Backbone fire Helibase in Willow Creek, California. Wildfire Today covered it HERE, HERE, and HERE.

We have not seen an official accident report about the accident, but the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued violation notices to the U. S. Forest Service related to the incident.

The first one is a “Serious” violation that involves the procedures for the use of the rappel equipment. OSHA provided in the document four specific “abatement methods to correct these hazards”. They involve equipment such as the Bourdon snap hook, a Mallion Rapide Tri-Link, and the HR-2 rappel harness.

The second is a “Willful” violation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.  OSHA accuses the USFS of failing to provide requested information about the accident. In fact, the USFS stated in writing that they would not comply with OSHA’s request.

Here is an excerpt from the violation notice OSHA sent to the U. S. Forest Service in Eureka, California, on October 2, 2009, about the “Willful” violation:

Excerpt from page 8 of OHSA’s notice to the U. S. Forest Service

OSHA apparently concludes that the only way the USFS could be in compliance with the Occupational Safety and Health Act and Executive Order No. 12196 is if the incident must be “kept secret in the interest of national defense or foreign policy”, but then says it involves neither.

One has to wonder if the recent trend of prosecuting people involved in accidents led to the refusal of the USFS to release the information OSHA requested.

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7 thoughts on “OSHA issues "Serious" and "Willfull" violation notices to USFS over rappelling fatality”

  1. "One has to wonder if the recent trend of prosecuting people involved in accidents led to the refusal of the USFS to release the information OSHA requested."Let me see If I’ve got this straight…a USFS employee(s) may have broken a law in causing or contributing to the death of another USFS employee, so now USFS supervisors are somehow justified in breaking the law to keep the results of their investigations secret? The Agency’s downward spiral continues with cover up and obstruction of justice.

  2. Mr. Maxwell-No, I never said the USFS was justified in refusing to comply with OSHA’s request for information. I was simply trying to guess what their motives were. We can guess what someone’s motive is for robbing a bank, but it does not mean we approve of their crime.And, the OSHA violation notice does not say anyone "broke the law in causing or contributing to the death of another USFS employee" as you said. It implies that the law may have been broken by refusing to cooperate with OSHA in the OSHA investigation of the death. If a law was broken, according to the OSHA notice, it occurred after the unfortunate fatality.But the U.S. Forest Service’s and National Park Service’s current strategy of "finding someone to prosecute" after a serious accident or fatality is having and will continue to have detrimental effects on the fire service.

  3. This is a very tragic event for the FF killed, his family and the members of his crew along with others.While with my past agency I started carrying outside insurance to cover cost of a defense lawyer and any judgement againsed me. The agency picked up half the cost. This was after a few cases of employees being left out in the cold and on their own when sued or involoved in a serious incident. I was also warned by a couple of trusted upper level managers that employees might be left with out support by the agency if involoved in a bad event.Now where does this leave our fire AD’s and contractors who keep taking up more load in supervising some fire operations. Can they still have faith in being protected by the agency in the event of an incident or will federal agents show up at their door and arrest them? I for one will re-visit the idea of insurance/legal protection plan and depending on cost may go with it. Somehow, something went wrong and a young person is dead. Thats a heavy burden for anyone to have who might have been involoved.

  4. Bill…. Spot on.Hopefully all folks involved with the "willful" finding from OSHA have liability insurance and are able to defend their reasoning for withholding info, or be able to lead upwards and help the Agency correct course when it comes to preventing or minimizing injuries. The findings of "serious" (not shown here) are pretty straight forward and corrective actions have already taken place in the field. The corrective actions pretty much mirrored the actions needed by R5 rappel crews before they were re-certified after the stand down.Willful violations of the OSH Act of 1970 carry some pretty severe civil and criminal penalties:http://www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_table=OSHACT&p_id=3371One has to realize though, the Regional Forester has delegated "Line Authority" from the Chief, and as such, is allowed to make decisions on behalf of the Agency. I am personally surprised that it wasn’t classified as a "willful-repeat" violation but things get pretty gray when folks shed accountability through bureaucracy. Line Authority is delegated from the Chief all the way down to District Rangers in terms of fire management programs, responsibilities, and accountability……. a legacy from the Organic Act that should have been corrected decades ago.Accountability does not equal blame. Things can be done better.JMHO.

  5. Looks like the head of the FS Chief should be on a platter for failing to comply with the LAW because of really stupid decisions by the R5 Deputy Regional Forester in not following the law…… Will "merde" roll uphill or downhill?….. Will accountability for diffused dysfunctional programs (instead of centralized programs) continue to be delegated through "line authority" to the regions and stations; the provinces; the forests; and the districts without relying upon the professional expertise? Time will tell. My bet… the memo from Pena was yet another oops per se by folks leading programs and responsibilities they are not qualified to do…… /s/ Pena (or staffer) for Randy Moore type of letter or reply (internal or external correspondence). Everyone in R5 (both in fire and other professions) knows what I’m talking about. Absolutely no accountability or leadership from the RO in R5 and it makes us looks like fools.There is a reason that the Forest Service was 206 out of 216 federal agencies……. While we’re at it…… add in the "new" Associate Chief for some of the accountability…… His "ASC Idea" has crippled the field and should share in his actions.My bad

  6. At least in this case it appears OSHA is addressing systemic, agency-level failures, instead of the previous pattern of the agency or others going after individuals who were dealt an unwinnable hand by such systemic failures, a la 30 mile and others.

  7. The FS and OSHA have a long history of animosity, and this latest spat shouldn’t surprise anyone. In a similar situation years ago, OSHA requested that the FS fork over "all" their safety/training materials related to Fire & Aviation. Response: "Uh, and where would you want us to park the trucks?"A quote from the Chief:

    We learned a lot about Safety at South Canyon. Aggressive fire fighting isn’t compromised so much as it is more carefully regulated now. We have to be aggressive in order to be effective. We went through that OSHA "zero tolerance of risk" business — we can minimize risk, but we can’t have zero. On a fire you’ve got trees blowing up and helicopters and rocks flying through the air — it’s hazardous.

    That was Chief Jack Ward Thomas — in 1997. I won’t even hazard a guess about why the FS refused to fork over the material OSHA demanded. But I’m not yet willing to condemn the decision; they could indeed have good reason for it.

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