11 violations found in federal investigation at Blue Ridge Parkway after worker’s death

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Findings prompt BRP changes, may lead to others in the National Park Service

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration released details this week into an investigation launched after a National Park Service employee fell to his death in May while mowing this Blue Ridge Parkway overlook, seen here on June 10, 2012. The agency found 11 problems, nine considered ‘serious’ workplace violations, ones that, according to the agency, are hazards, violations or conditions where there is a ‘substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result.’
Hank Shell/Carolina Public Press

A six-month-long federal investigation prompted by the May 7 death of a maintenance worker on the Blue Ridge Parkway uncovered nine “serious” violations of workplace safety standards by the National Park Service, officials said Thursday.

The violations, which were cited in a Nov. 2 document from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, have triggered a massive overhaul of mowing operations along the Parkway, Superintendent Phil Francis said.

The results of the investigation and the Parkway’s response could also have wider implications for mowing operations across the national park system, depending on whether other directors choose to implement changes, Park Service spokesman Bill Reynolds said.

A “Notice of Unsafe or Unhealthful Working Conditions” issued to the National Park Service and obtained by Carolina Public Press details what inspectors found following the May 7 death of a maintenance worker on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Click to view full-size image, or see the entire document below.

According to documents obtained this week by Carolina Public Press, officials issued a total of 11 notices to the Park Service for safety and health violations, including one that related to mowing hazards for employees, in an investigation launched after the death of park employee Dana Bruce, 63, on May 7.

That day, Bruce was maneuvering a zero-turn mower behind a trashcan on the valley side of Haw Creek Overlook near Asheville when his mower slid off the mountainside, falling more than 100 feet and killing him.

In the notice regarding mowing hazards, officials stated that the head of the National Park Service did not provide a place of employment “free from recognized hazards that were likely to cause death or serious injury.” See the entire document below.

Nine notices ranked as “serious” violations, or ones where there is “substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result and that the employer knew, or should have known, of the hazard,” according to OSHA.

During inspections of the Parkway, which were conducted between May 7 and May 11, OSHA found that employees cutting grass at the Haw Creek Overlook were exposed of hazards of tip-over and falling while operating zero-turn mowers near the sloped edge, according to the documents.

The Park Service ordered the nation’s parks to temporarily cease mowing operations following Bruce’s death. All parks were required to complete risk assessments, equipment safety reviews and additional employee training before mowing could resume. Because Bruce was a federal employee, his death on the job also triggered the federal investigation by OSHA.

Though the notice did not specifically cite the fatality, OSHA spokesman Michael D’Aquino wrote, in an email interview with Carolina Public Press, that it “was related to the fatality.”

OSHA gave the Park Service a deadline of Nov. 17 to provide documentation of abatement for that violation.

Kim Morton, director of OSHA’s Raleigh Area Office, said she had received the required abatement documentation from the Park Service and is currently reviewing it. Morton’s office conducted the initial inspections.

As a federal agency, the National Park Service and its subsidiaries must comply with OSHA standards, although OSHA may not levy monetary penalties against other federal agencies for failing to comply with its standards.

According to the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, the Parkway has more than twice the number of visitors those that visit Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon combined. The foundation said that the annual operating budget for the Parkway is about half of the others’.

Spokesman: 500 safety assessments completed

Following Bruce’s death, Francis said, the Parkway realized it “needed to do more” to emphasize safety.

Since initially reducing all mowing to push mowers and string trimmers, the Parkway has slowly been vetting its fleet of riding mowers and tractors, reevaluating its procedures and retraining employees.

Francis said Parkway staff has completed more than 500 safety assessments of mowing sites along its 469 miles of roadside. Riding mowers have been re-implemented at sites where they’ve been approved and assessments completed.

“We’re not saying that those kind of mowers can never be used in places, but the procedures will indicate how to use those mowers in those places in a safe way,” Francis said.

Francis said the Parkway has acted on the five suggested methods for rectifying mowing hazards, as listed within the safety notice from OSHA.

The suggestions included developing, implementing and enforcing procedures to prevent employees from coming too close to unprotected edges, and ensuring that hazards listed in equipment manufacturer’s operator’s manuals are included in Job Hazard Analyses and are routinely reviewed by employees.

The operator’s manual for the Gravely Promaster 260Z, the type of mower Bruce was operating at the time, states that the mower is not safe for operation near drop-offs or embankments.

“The important thing is that safety has to be integrated into every aspect of every job and so, you know,” he said, “we’ve got some work to do.”

Francis said the Parkway hoped to have all assessments completed and mowing back to normal by spring of next year.

Findings could prompt changes at other national parks

A serious-accident investigative team from the Park Service had already conducted its own follow-up investigation of the May 7 incident, Francis said. The team’s findings and review will be shared with the rest of the park system.

Reynolds said that safety is something that national parks work toward together.

“The issue of safety management is something that we look at as a shared responsibility,” Reynolds said. “It’s a management responsibility, it’s a leadership responsibility, and we view our employees as the most important resources that we have to protect.”

These findings could affect mowing procedures at other national parks, he said.

“I’m fairly certain that other national parks, especially ones that have similar type operations to this parkway, will be made aware of the report,” Reynolds said. “They will be made aware of the review. They will be made aware of the remediation actions that have been taken, and they will be made aware of the lessons learned.

OSHA will conduct a follow-up inspection after the Park Service submits all abatement certifications and documentation. Morton said that inspection would be scheduled after Dec. 30.

In addition to the mowing violation, OSHA issued eight other notices of serious violations to the Park Service, violations that also were uncovered during the May inspections and ensuing investigation. Two “other-than-serious” violations also were reported.

The other “serious” violations included damaged welding cables that exposed employees to potential shock hazards, insufficient conduits to protect circuit conductor wiring and flexible cords used as a substitute for the fixed wiring of a structure.

Two of the serious violations were corrected during inspection, according to the notice.

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About the Author

Hank Shell

Hank Shell is a contributing reporter and photographer with Carolina Public Press. Contact him at shelljh@email.appstate.edu.

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