‘It shouldn’t have happened.’ Cal/OSHA cites, fines Modesto in electrician’s death

Modesto father wants answers from city about son’s electrocution

Cal/OSHA says Modesto violated regulations and has fined the city $39,750 in the electrocution of Tyrone Darnell Hairston. The city is appealing, but the worker’s dad says his son did not have to die.
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Cal/OSHA says Modesto violated regulations and has fined the city $39,750 in the electrocution of Tyrone Darnell Hairston. The city is appealing, but the worker’s dad says his son did not have to die.

A state agency has issued four citations and a $39,750 penalty against Modesto for safety violations in the electrocution of a worker who was part of a city crew installing a streetlight pole when contact was made with high-voltage power lines.

Modesto is appealing these findings from the investigation by the Division of Occupational Safety and Health, better known as Cal/OSHA. But the appeal is on hold while Cal/OSHA’s Bureau of Investigations conducts its own investigation into the April 9 death of Modesto electrician assistant Tyrone Darnell Hairston, who was 30 years old.

A bureau investigation is standard procedure, said Frank Polizzi, a spokesman for the state Department of Industrial Relations. Cal/OSHA is a part of DIR. He said the bureau turns its investigations over to local prosecutors if it determines there was criminal wrongdoing on behalf of the employer, which in this case would be the city.

And as all of this unfolds, a Modesto father is sure of one thing — his son did not have to die.

“I want to know the truth, and I want them to admit what took place because what they are doing to me, basically, is glossing over what happened,” said Tyrone Alfonso Hairston. “They’re saying, ‘Yes it happened; now we fixed it.’ And then they are skipping over the other part of all these violations that took place to where my son died, and it was needless. It shouldn’t have happened.”

Modesto spokesman Thomas Reeves said in a statement that Hairston’s family, friends and coworkers have the city’s deepest sympathy and support. “The city’s highest priority has and continues to be the safety and well-being of all our employees and the public, so that this type of tragedy will not happen again,” according to the statement.

Hairston and two other city workers were installing a streetlight pole with an arm where the light is attached at the southwest corner of the intersection at Roselle and Floyd avenues in Village I on the morning of April 9. The work was near several Modesto Irrigation District high-voltage power lines. Hairston’s father said that section of the intersection is especially dangerous because of a number of power lines.

One of the workers used a truck with a boom to lift the pole into place, according to a summary from the Cal/OSHA investigation. Hairston was holding the pole. (His father said his son’s job was to bolt the base of the pole into place.)

But because of “the awkward nature of the light pole, the pole was out of position to secure it into place,” according to the summary. So the workers “rotated the light pole in a circular motion ... to realign the light. As the crew rotated the light pole ... (one crew member) heard a zap and immediately yelled for (Hairston). (The crew member) ran over to (Hairston) and rolled him over. (The third crew member) was standing at the back of the truck and called 911.”

The summary’s causes and conclusions section states: “Employees rotating light post and made contact with high voltage power lines.”

Based on its investigation, which was completed in August, Cal/OSHA determined Modesto violated these regulations:

It did not notify the Modesto Irrigation District of its plans to install a streetlight pole near MID power lines. Polizzi, the DIR spokesman, said the power lines did not need to be turned off, only that the city notify the MID. This is a general violation with a $375 penalty.

It “did not have warning signs as required for operators of cranes or similar apparatus” when “installing a light pole within 10 feet of high voltage lines.” This is a serious violation with a $3,375 penalty.

City employees “were permitted to install a light pole in proximity to energized high-voltage lines without the danger from accidental contact with said high-voltage lines being effectively guarded against, as a result a fatal injury occurred.” This is a serious-accident related violation with an $18,000 penalty.

The city employees did not keep their equipment and the light pole the required minimum of 6 feet from 12,000-voltage power lines and “as a result a fatal injury occurred.” This is a serious-accident related violation with an $18,000 penalty.

The two other city employees with Hairston that day were Allen Garan and Ricardo Lacerda. Garan, who sounded distraught during a brief phone call, declined to comment. Lacerda could not be reached for comment.

They did not respond to phone messages left with them by a Cal/OSHA investigator. The investigator wrote in his report that when he called the city, another employee asked him, “What law requires employees to respond”?

Reeves, the city spokesman, said in his statement that after the accident, Modesto immediately convened a Serious Accident Review Team, which included representatives from neighboring public agencies and electricians, “to independently find out what happened, why it happened and how to prevent it in the future.”

He added that since this accident Modesto has “installed additional safety protocols. For example, prior to starting complex projects, our teams now must perform tailgate safety meetings where they go over the safety procedures for the job. Also at these tailgates, our teams ensure that everyone is wearing the proper personal protective equipment.” He added that Modesto also has hired a safety officer.

Reeves declined to provide The Bee with a copy of the SART investigation, saying it has not yet been finalized. He also declined to answer questions about the accident or address concerns raised by Hairston’s father, other than to say the matter remains under investigation, and the “city will take all appropriate actions to ensure safety and accountability based on the investigations.”

Hairston claims Modesto failed to follow its existing safety protocols before his son’s death. Hairston works at the Village I Raley’s grocery store and was just a couple of hundred of yards away when his son was killed, but did not learn about the death until hours later.

Hairston is a methodical man and has collected a folder about an inch thick with research — including Cal/OSHA documents — on his son’s death. He said his son, whom family called Nique, was always there for his friends and family. ”You’d be hard pressed to find somebody that didn’t like him,” Hairston said. “He always had a smile on his face.”

But Hairston said his son shared his same methodical manner and confided in him that he feared other city workers were too complacent. He said his son had been an electrician assistant for about six months and didn’t want to speak out because he still was on probation.

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Kevin Valine covers local government, homelessness and general assignment for The Modesto Bee. He is a graduate of San Jose State University and grew up in San Jose.