Fatal incident underscores roadway dangers for Stanislaus workers

Stanislaus County worker dies after being struck by vehicle

A Stanislaus County worker was killed while working on a manhole on this stretch of Claribel Road in Modesto, Calif., on Thursday, June 23, 2016.
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A Stanislaus County worker was killed while working on a manhole on this stretch of Claribel Road in Modesto, Calif., on Thursday, June 23, 2016.

A roadway incident last month that killed Stanislaus County public works employee Russell Scott Atchinson has spawned three investigations into the cause of the incident and workplace safety.

The probes are automatic given the nature of the on-the-job fatality involving a public employee.

Atchinson’s death June 23 had an emotional impact on county employees who risk their lives working on roads, his manager said.

“It is inherently dangerous when you are out on the road,” public works Director Matt Machado said. “We take precautions, but you are at the mercy of people’s driving behavior.”

Atchinson, 58, of Modesto was inspecting a survey monument in the middle of a newly paved part of Claribel Road when he was struck by a GMC Sierra pickup driven by 66-year-old John Masellis of Hughson, county officials said.

The incident occurred on a canal crossing west of the Oakdale-Waterford Highway; Atchinson was pronounced dead at the scene.

The California Highway Patrol is continuing to investigate the cause and details of the incident and may not complete its report for two weeks. The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health investigates work-related fatalities and will consider whether the county was in compliance with worker safety rules.

The county’s risk management division is handling a third investigation of the incident, Assistant County Executive Officer Jody Hayes said.

“We are cooperating with the Cal-OSHA investigation,” Hayes assured, noting the various probes could take 60 days to complete.

Atchinson, a senior engineering and survey technician, was coming back from a job that afternoon and stopped to verify that a contracting firm, which had repaved Claribel Road, had properly placed the survey markers in covered wells in the roadway. The markers are essential for mapping land boundaries in the county.

He verified a marker in the westbound lane and was checking one in the eastbound lane on the canal crossing. Atchinson was on his hands and knees over the cover when the pickup truck approached in the eastbound lane.

Atchinson looked up at Masellis and the driver applied the brakes, but there was no time for either to avoid the crash.

Machado said the employee, who was alone, had placed cones on the road to alert motorists that work was being done. He was on the other side of the smooth crest of the canal crossing, and Machado contended he should have been visible to motorists.

“I don’t know what happened,” Machado said. “We are waiting for the CHP report.”

The Modesto Bee was not able to contact the driver of the pickup.

Machado said the fatal incident sparked “absolute shock and disbelief” among staff members who worked with Atchinson, and the trauma has not gone away for road crews that work daily in the traffic environment.

“We do what we can to support the individuals who were most directly involved,” Hayes said. “We want to make sure to support the staff who worked with him.”

Atchinson was known as “Scotty” and was popular for an infectious laugh and friendly manner with co-workers. He was from New Zealand and had the accent. He was hired in December 2011 and traveled to work on two wheels, either on a motorcycle or bicycle.

His family’s Facebook page displays affectionate pictures of Atchinson with his wife and 22-year-old daughter. The Sacramento-based California Land Surveyors Association extended condolences to his family and colleagues.

Machado said his department stands behind its safety record. “We go hundreds of days without accidents and injuries,” he said.

Officials said the county will be open to any proposals for making the work environment safer based on findings of the investigations.

“There is a general acknowledgment of the dangers of working on roadways,” Hayes said. “We have extensive training in place for our road crews.”

Ken Carlson: 209-578-2321, @KenCarlson16