Our View: In Modesto’s case of electrocuted worker, higher-ups must be held accountable

That very morning, a recently hired apprentice had begun learning how to install street light poles for the city of Modesto. A few hours later, presumably doing exactly as he was told in an unfamiliar task, a massive jolt of electricity killed him.

Someone must be held accountable for 30-year-old Tyrone Hairston’s tragic and totally preventable death.

Who might that be?

The city wants us to believe this horrible electrocution was the fault of the two experienced electricians working alongside Hairston, and their immediate supervisor who was not there. Two weeks ago, City Hall unveiled two reports after a year-long investigation — one is pocked with William Barr-like redactions — and announced that the three men, now on paid leave, face unidentified discipline. The city wants to fire the electricians, their union says; all three will dispute proposed penalties at upcoming hearings.

Two weeks ago, a city spokesman also told Bee reporter Kevin Valine he wasn’t aware of other investigations or potential discipline, leading all to believe that higher-ups were in the clear. Anyone studying the two documents would find that incredibly hard to swallow.

Do the men on the front line — electricians Allen Garan and Ricardo Lacerda, and electrical supervisor Rodney Nelson — share some blame? Yes, according to a Serious Accident Review Team document and accompanying internal report. They note numerous lapses in judgment, including failure to stop and make sure the pole was at least 10 feet from high-voltage lines when it was suspended in the air by a crane tether while Hairston, using his hands, guided it toward a base for bolting down. He was electrocuted when an upper arm suddenly swung into contact with the high-voltage wire.

Garan, who should have been spotting the work, or watching for any problems, told investigators the sun was in his and Hairston’s eyes. Why such dangerous work would proceed when you can’t even see what you’re doing is unfathomable.

If common sense was not enough, weren’t they at least trained to avoid such danger?

That’s where accountability of higher-ups comes into play.

Come to find out, there is no written protocol for installing street light poles. Workers learned this skill on the job from experienced crew mates. The city maintains 11,575 such poles, some of which require replacing from time to time, like after a vehicle plows one over, as was the case here, near a roundabout at Floyd and Roselle avenues.

The city does have two relevant written policies that, if followed, should have prevented Hairston’s death, said investigators with the law office of Terry Roemer, hired by the city to find out what went wrong. The first policy is called an Electrical Safety Program; it spells out the 10-foot clearance rule, and also mandates a spotter “whose only duty will be to notify the employee” if he gets too close to a power line, the policy says. Garan and Lacerda didn’t do that. Lacerda was running the crane, and the sun was in Garan’s eyes, and he also turned to fetch a tool and wasn’t even watching when Hairston was killed.

The second training policy is called an Injury and Illness Prevention Program. It requires that crews evaluate hazards and hold safety “tailgate” huddles before starting a task, and fill out a job safety analysis form if needed. This is so important that a worker can’t even open a manhole cover without being trained to do so, the investigator found. The men didn’t do that before Hairston’s death, because they never did it. In fact, they didn’t even know that an Injury and Illness Prevention Program existed because the city never used it in training, the investigator said.

Training is a big deal in preventing catastrophe. Such a big deal that the investigator mentioned the lack of training these men had, over and over and over in his report. “Without accountability and enforcement, policies and procedures are ineffective,” the Serious Accident Review Team concluded.

One employee, whose identification was redacted, told the investigator that management does not allocate sufficient money for training. Nelson said that Nelson’s predecessor had asked that staff receive training for crane operations, but management denied the request.

Since Hairston’s death, the city has hired a safety officer whose duties include making sure crews receive proper training. Management obviously recognizes, now, how important training is.

Pressed for details, city spokesman Thomas Reeves on Friday said the two investigation reports have prompted yet another probe that promises to “shed more light on this topic.” Asked about responsibility for lack of training leading to Hairston’s death, Reeves said it belongs with unnamed supervisors. Asked if they face discipline, Reeves said in an email, “Additional corrective action may come” when the third probe is complete.

When that happens, full disclosure is a must. The people who own City Hall — all residents and taxpayers — have a right to know what their government is doing, how it’s spending their money and how it’s keeping us and its own employees safe.

Accountability is essential to public trust. And that goes for those who should have trained the men who watched their coworker suffer a terrible death.