Lake Stevens faces fine for alleged worker safety violations

A state agency says lack of training put Public Works employees at risk of injury and illnesses.

LAKE STEVENS — State regulators issued nearly $20,000 in fines to the city of Lake Stevens, alleging more than a dozen “serious” violations of worker safety rules that could have led to injuries or exposure to Hepatitis B or HIV.

The Department of Labor and Industries cited the city after two inspections of the Public Works department earlier this year.

The first, completed in April, found the city had failed to establish a safety committee and conduct required safety meetings. There were no penalties assessed and the city took corrective action, state officials said.

The second inspection, wrapped up in May, focused on measures intended to protect the health of workers. Investigators alleged 20 violations, of which 13 were deemed serious and led to fines totaling $19,800.

The inspection results contend the city did not provide workers with adequate training on how to test for toxic gases when working in confined spaces, such as storm drains, tunnels and wells. This, they concluded, could have potentially put workers’ respiratory systems at risk. Additional alleged violations pertaining to confined-space work involved a lack of training and established duties, missing permits and supervision procedures that were not compliant with state code.

The state also concluded the city failed to develop a written program for recognizing and dealing with potential exposure to blood-borne pathogens. Neither did it have records of training employees for such exposure, nor documentation of which employees had Hepatitis B vaccinations and which had declined. And there was no mention of the availability of Hepatitis B vaccines to employees in the department’s Accident Prevention Plan, according to the agency findings.

The city is appealing the fines, a move which will put the penalties on hold. Lake Stevens also had until Sunday to correct problems noted in the citation containing alleged violations.

“We’ve been working closely with L&I to address the concerns,” said Gene Brazel, Lake Stevens city administrator.

The appeal process can take up to six months, starting with an informal meeting during which involved parties can briefly explain their positions and provide any additional information, according to agency spokesperson Dina Lorraine.

Brazel said the city doesn’t believe all of the information compiled by the state agency is accurate. Brazel said he could not speak to which information was inaccurate and said that information will be in the appeal.

Public Works Director Eric Durpos and Public Works Operations Manager Tyler Eshleman did not respond to requests for comment.

Liz Brown, business agent for Teamsters 763, which represents employees in the department, raised workers’ concerns directly with L&I inspectors who conducted the investigations.

“Employers always say safety is their top concern, but all too frequently the message employees receive on a daily basis is to work faster and complete tasks as quickly as possible,” she said in an email.

Two public works employees who asked not to be named, fearing job retaliation, alleged that less than a week before L&I began its inspection, employees went to perform confined-spaces work in a “type 2 catch basin” with a “gas sniffer” that they were not trained to operate.

One of the employees said that since L&I’s inspection concluded, the employees have received training in forklift operation, confined-spaces work, CPR and heat-related illnesses.

There had been concerns about on-the-job safety among some public works employees for some time before a formal complaint was filed by an unnamed worker with the Labor and Industries in December.

On Jan. 14, three L&I inspectors launched the parallel investigations with an “opening conference” with Eshleman.

The initial inspection wrapped up with a “closing conference” April 7, when state officials met with Eshleman, Brazel and Durpos. The second investigation concluded May 12. Brazel and Anya Warrington, the city’s human resources director, took part, according to Lorraine. So, too, did Teamsters representatives.

The original complainant, who requested the state keep their identity confidential, cited a lack of commitment to safety by management and inadequate training on equipment such as bucket trucks and crane trucks. They also mentioned potential health hazards resulting from a lack of training before employees are sent into confined spaces.

Subsequent employee interviews elicited further concerns about practices employed for handling hazardous chemicals and potential exposure to diseases when cleaning up needles and other items found on city property. Employees told state investigators they did not receive adequate training to recognize the potential dangers.

The investigation also found the public works department lacked a compliant safety-training program for workers involved with handling chemicals and those required to wear respirators to perform their jobs.

One employee told L&I inspectors that the safety program was “almost non-existent“ and “safety training and equipment certification training stopped about 4-5 years ago,” according to handwritten notes included in the state report.

In the course of the investigation, some workers expressed reticence in sharing their views with L&I investigators because they feared retaliation by department “management.” One worker said they thought there had been a listening device in the locker room after hearing Durpos use a phrase that had been mentioned there.

In a March 4 email, an L&I inspector told a fellow inspector about a phone call she had with the original complainant. In that call, the person reported that three city workers were called in by management and threatened with getting written up following a round of employee interviews that L&I staff conducted in late January.

In that same email, the inspector said the complainant told her another employee was told he may be demoted if he told anyone what he said to L&I during the interviews.

Mayor Brett Gailey referred questions about the L&I investigation and pending fines to Brazel.

City Council President Kim Daughtry said he was aware of the L&I inspections but did not know anything about them. He also deferred questions to the city administrator.

“It’s not in our wheelhouse,” Daughtry said.

Isabella Breda: 425-339-3192; isabella.breda@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @BredaIsabella

Jerry Cornfield: jcornfield@heraldnet.com; @dospueblos

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