The February death of a worker at a winery in Dundee, Oregon has resulted in a fine of more than $11,000 being levied by the state Occupational Safety and Health Agency. An OSHA statement issued late last week offered the basic facts of the case, but also left several key questions open.
According to media reports, the victim was a 39-year-old McMinnville man employed as a cellar worker at Corus Estates & Vineyards. The OSHA statement details how the man suffocated and then fell into a 30,000 gallon wine tank as he was moving a portion of the wine from that tank to another. Servicing the tank involved going into a confined space where “low-pressure nitrogen gas was being pumped in from the top of the tank to prevent oxidation of the remnants,” the agency statement explains. “The employee was asphyxiated as a result of the displacement of oxygen due to the low-pressure nitrogen gas in the tank.” After falling in, the worker was found unresponsive.
The total fine of $11,100 was broken down into several parts by the agency, and the details of those elements makes interesting reading. By far the largest portion of the fine – $7500 – was assessed for failing to test the air in the space around the tank before the job got underway and failing to have an attendant and an entry supervisor monitor the work, as required by law. Separate fines of $1200 each were imposed for failures to review and practice safety and rescue procedures, failure to properly renew the required permits and failures of employee training, including not offering safety information in Spanish.
Much of the statement focuses on the laws and OSHA rules that govern work in confined spaces, defined as areas that a person can fully enter, but where the necessary work can be done but entry and exit are limited and which are “not designed for continuous human occupancy.”
The statement does not say directly that the winery lacked the proper permits, but the reference to “not ensuring that all confined space permits were reviewed after they were cancelled” certainly implies that the winery had been subject to some previous form of enforcement action. This requires further investigation. Based on the limited information in the OHSA news release the family of the deceased may be justified in filing an Oregon wrongful death lawsuit.
It is also quite possible that the winery could be sued under Oregon’s employer liability and industrial accident statutes. At the most basic level, these require any employer to offer its employees (including sub-contractors) a safe work environment. That not only means complying with laws on things like work in confined spaces, it also means making sure that people have the proper training and tools to do their jobs, that those tools are properly maintained and that that supervisors ensure compliance up and down the workplace chain of command.
Most of us do not think of winemaking as a dangerous occupation, but as an Oregon lawyer who has long focused on wrongful death and employment liability cases I hope readers will take a lesson from this tragic case: workplaces can be dangerous, no matter what the industry. The good news is that the legal system is here to help keep employers honest, and to ensure accountability when they come up short.
Portland Business Journal: Dundee winery fines $11,100 in winery worker’s death
Justia.com: Kinminster v Day Management Corporation
ORS 654.305: Protection and safety of persons in hazardous employment generally
ORS 30.020: Action for Wrongful Death