Honoring the Workers Killed on the Job

From wildfires to construction sites, a year in California workplace deaths.

Amy DePaul April 29, 2019

This sto­ry was sup­port­ed by the Eco­nom­ic Hard­ship Report­ing Project

WILLIAM CAS­DORPH, OR CAS,” AS SOME CO-WORK­ERS KNEW HIM, was a kind­ly state high­way work­er who once made the news for res­cu­ing Hei­di, a 14-year-old deaf and blind ter­ri­er dis­cov­ered in the brush near his work­site. But Cas would not live to see the end of 2018. The hus­band and father of three daugh­ters died after falling from a high­way over­pass in San Diego in Sep­tem­ber. Cas­dorph is the 189th Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion employ­ee killed on the job in Cal­i­for­nia since 1921. He joins the state’s ros­ter of fall­en work­ers who were hit by heavy objects, elec­tro­cut­ed, run over by cars, pinned by fork­lifts or even buried alive, prov­ing that work­place dan­gers per­sist well into the dig­i­tal age.

Yes, work­ers are still dying,” laments Mara Orten­burg­er, direc­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions and research at Work­safe, a work­place safe­ty orga­ni­za­tion in Oak­land. Recent data show that 376 work­ers died on the job in Cal­i­for­nia in 2017, improb­a­bly the same as in 2016. Sim­i­lar­ly, Cal­i­for­nia rate of work­place fatal­i­ties, once declin­ing, has plateaued in recent years. (Alas­ka and North Dako­ta lead the nation, with a rate that is near­ly five times high­er than the Gold­en State’s.) More gov­ern­ment inspec­tions, which reduce injuries and employ­er med­ical costs, would offer some relief, but safe­ty experts point out that pre­ven­tion must begin with employers.

Many peo­ple assume that deaths at work are the result of a freak acci­dent,” says Orten­burg­er, who believes super­vi­sors are set­ting an unre­al­is­tic pace of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty that leads to cut­ting cor­ners — and fatal­i­ties. These are pre­ventable sit­u­a­tions. It’s a mis­take to call them work­place accidents.”

Dan­ger­ous work reflects social inequities, so it’s not sur­pris­ing that 67 per­cent of Lat­inx work­ers killed on the job nation­al­ly were immi­grants, accord­ing to a 2017 AFL-CIO report. California’s 40,000 day labor­ers, one-third of the nation’s total, take on the most ardu­ous jobs in con­struc­tion, main­te­nance, gar­den­ing, land­scap­ing and — increas­ing­ly — warehouses.

Out­sourc­ing also com­pro­mis­es work­place safe­ty, accord­ing to Kevin Riley, direc­tor of research and eval­u­a­tion at UCLA’s Labor Occu­pa­tion­al Safe­ty and Health pro­gram. He says larg­er employ­ers — from man­u­fac­tur­ers to hos­pi­tals — are sub­con­tract­ing more haz­ardous tasks like chem­i­cal spill cleanup to small­er firms. Rather than invest­ing a lot in mak­ing sure the day-to-day work­force is pre­pared to deal with those sit­u­a­tions, they will bring in an out­side com­pa­ny,” says Riley.

Calls to step up reg­u­la­tion come at a time when the Trump Admin­is­tra­tion con­tin­ues to relax rules for report­ing work­place acci­dents, though a new law in Cal­i­for­nia is expect­ed to pre­serve many Oba­ma-era require­ments. Pre­cise record-keep­ing not only plays a role in pre­ven­tion but in mea­sur­ing the true cost of the prod­ucts, ser­vices and safe­ty that we eas­i­ly take for granted. 

The fol­low­ing pho­tographs cap­ture the set­tings, though not nec­es­sar­i­ly the exact loca­tions, in which Cal­i­for­ni­ans lost their lives due to work­place dan­gers in 2018. Some of the work­ers held high­er-pro­file posi­tions in the pub­lic sec­tor, while oth­ers toiled out of sight in dan­ger­ous occu­pa­tions that too often remain invis­i­ble to us: tree trim­ming, con­struc­tion and harvesting. 

OCT. 292018

HAR­VESTER LEON MARCE­LO LUA WOULD HAVE TURNED 50 IN APRIL. He died in a grape-pick­ing machine acci­dent at Decon­inck Vine­yards in Napa, leav­ing a wife and three kids. He was always hard-work­ing,” his daugh­ter Este­fany Marce­lo Zavala says, recall­ing that he had logged a long work day before the day’s shift that proved fatal. The Michoacán, Mex­i­co native spent 30 years in har­vest­ing and some­times cleaned hous­es for extra income. He came home from work bone tired, his daugh­ter recalls, yet he found ener­gy for danc­ing and loved Mex­i­can ban­da music. When his daugh­ter took a year off after grad­u­at­ing from high school, he let her know he want­ed her back in the class­room. He would always say he want­ed us to go to school and stay in school. He didn’t want us to have a dif­fi­cult job like he had,” his daugh­ter recalls. When I told him I was going back to school he was real­ly happy.”

Este­fany is cur­rent­ly a stu­dent at Napa Val­ley Col­lege and plans to trans­fer to a Cal­i­for­nia State Uni­ver­si­ty in 2021. Her major is admin­is­tra­tion of jus­tice, and while she’s not yet sure what she’ll do pro­fes­sion­al­ly, she knows that get­ting a degree isn’t just a career move, it’s a daughter’s heart­felt trib­ute to her late father’s sac­ri­fice. I feel like me going to col­lege is pay­ing off all the years he was at the job,” she says.

Efforts to obtain com­ment from Marcelo’s employ­er were unsuccessful.

SEPT. 192018

William Cas­dorph, 57, took on high­ly dan­ger­ous assign­ments as a high­way main­te­nance lead­work­er at Cal­Trans. His job called on him to patch and resur­face high­ways, delete graf­fi­ti, clean signs and remove large debris — all while 10 feet away from whizzing cars. Cas­dorph was work­ing with his crew on an over­pass on State Route 163 in San Diego when he fell. Cowork­er Robert Betha remem­bers the 19-year vet­er­an as gen­er­ous — help­ing a fel­low employ­ee on his own time to prac­tice dri­ving for his Class B license. Oth­er peo­ple say, Go out and prac­tice,’” says Betha. He under­stood you have to show peo­ple what to do and how to do it.” He was sim­i­lar­ly hands-on when it came to safe­ty, look­ing out for the well-being of his crew. He’d be in the back, coor­di­nat­ing with the trucks, which lanes to cov­er,” Betha says, call­ing his co-worker’s death sad­ly iron­ic giv­en his com­mit­ment to fol­low­ing pro­ce­dures. He was orches­trat­ing the whole sit­u­a­tion, keep­ing every­body safe.”

JULY 292018

Bri­an Hugh­es, 33, was fight­ing the Fer­gu­son fire on its east­ern flank when he was fatal­ly struck by a falling dead tree. One of six fire­fight­ers to per­ish in Cal­i­for­nia wild­fires last year, Hugh­es served as cap­tain of the Arrow­head Inter­a­gency Hot­shots, an elite fed­er­al fire­fight­ing force based in Sequoia and Kings Canyon Nation­al Parks. His imme­di­ate super­vi­sor, Super­in­ten­dent Joe Suarez, first worked with him in 2007; the two men had homes in the same com­mu­ni­ty in Squaw Val­ley. Suarez praised Hugh­es for his work eth­ic: There are days where it’s 100 degrees out there, you are car­ry­ing a 45-pound pack up a steep moun­tain­side, work­ing all day, 10 hours a day or 16-hour shifts. The shifts can extend to 32 hours some­times.” Hugh­es, orig­i­nal­ly from Hawaii, was proud to be a Hot­shot, says Suarez, who remem­bered him as down to earth” and a fan of coun­try music and the Green Bay Pack­ers — just a great guy over­all.” Hugh­es and his fiancée were expect­ing a baby girl. It’s been a dev­as­tat­ing year all around,” Suarez says.

July 62018

Tem­per­a­tures reached as high as 117 degrees on the after­noon that mail car­ri­er Peg­gy Frank, 63, called in to say she was run­ning behind on her route. The moth­er of two and grand­moth­er was lat­er found in her U.S. Postal Ser­vice truck on Calderon Road in Wood­land Hills after she died of hyper­ther­mia, or heat stroke. The Occu­pa­tion­al Safe­ty and Health Admin­is­tra­tion fined the U.S. Postal Ser­vice $149,664 in Jan­u­ary for not hav­ing a heat ill­ness pre­ven­tion pro­gram. In Novem­ber, OSHA levied a penal­ty against the Postal Ser­vice when four employ­ees in the same Las Vegas sta­tion were treat­ed for heat-relat­ed illness.

A spokesman for the Postal Ser­vice said, Our thoughts and prayers are and have been with Ms. Frank’s fam­i­ly since this trag­ic inci­dent occurred,” and declined to com­ment on the OSHA find­ings, which have been contested.

More such inci­dents are fore­cast as a result of cli­mate change, warned Dr. Jere­my Hess, a pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton School of Pub­lic Health who has stud­ied occu­pa­tion­al health and heat. Old­er work­ers and those suf­fer­ing from obe­si­ty or using med­ica­tions are par­tic­u­lar­ly sus­cep­ti­ble. But extreme heat is also felt indoors, such as in gar­ment indus­try jobs that involve machin­ery and iron­ing, as well as work in ware­hous­es, typ­i­cal­ly locat­ed in the desert and not air con­di­tioned. Cal­i­for­nia is in the process of devel­op­ing indoor heat standards.

MAY 92018

Juan Diego Lopez, 38, and anoth­er work­er were installing sewage pipes 17 feet below ground in a trench at a res­i­den­tial con­struc­tion site in Lake For­est, Orange Coun­ty. When a 30-foot-wide sec­tion of the trench’s side­wall caved in, Lopez’s co-work­er escaped, but Lopez was trapped under­ground. Cal/​OSHA fined the con­struc­tion firm $66,000, say­ing the com­pa­ny failed to ensure the site was inspect­ed by some­one com­pe­tent in assess­ing trench risks and soil con­di­tions, which were unsta­ble. The vio­la­tions are still under appeal. Cal/​OSHA had cit­ed the con­struc­tion firm pre­vi­ous­ly for trench safe­ty vio­la­tions and last year levied penal­ties for trench fatal­i­ties in Oak­land and Daly City as well. Nation­al­ly, OSHA renewed its focus on trench and exca­va­tion safe­ty after fatal acci­dents more than dou­bled from 2015 to 2016.

MARCH 162018

Eduar­do Sam­payo Jimenez, 29, was sus­pend­ed by a safe­ty har­ness about 25 feet off the ground trim­ming Cal­i­for­nia king palm trees in the back yard of a house in Camar­il­lo when he was elec­tro­cut­ed. He had cut and dis­card­ed a palm frond and it came into con­tact with a pow­er line. Elec­tric­i­ty can jump from a high volt­age line even when the tree trim­mer is no longer hold­ing the branch that grazes it, explains Ben Van­der­beck, founder of Dripline​.net, a news web­site that cov­ers the tree care indus­try. Van­der­beck start­ed doc­u­ment­ing tree-care acci­dents to raise aware­ness of how per­ilous the work is. Being struck by falling trees and branch­es caus­es the most injuries and fatal­i­ties. Next would by lac­er­a­tions by chain­saw. The third would be high volt­age pow­er wires and the fourth would be falling,” Van­der­beck says. Cal/​OSHA fined the tree ser­vice com­pa­ny $28,605, though the vio­la­tions are under appeal. 

Amy DePaul is an award-win­ning dig­i­tal reporter who has cov­ered pub­lic health in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia since 2011. She is the recip­i­ent of local, region­al and nation­al awards for her report­ing, and was recent­ly named a Senior Fel­low at USC’s Cen­ter for Health Jour­nal­ism. Her work has been pub­lished in a vari­ety of dig­i­tal and print pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing NBC​.com, Voice of OC, LATimes​.com, the Orange Coun­ty Reg­is­ter, ESPN’s The Unde­feat­ed and Nar­ra­tive­ly. She has taught report­ing to stu­dents at UC Irvine, Cal State Fuller­ton and Mia­mi Uni­ver­si­ty of Ohio. For more infor­ma­tion, vis­it https://www.centerforhealthjournalism.org/users/amydepaul‑0.Rian Dun­don is a pho­tog­ra­ph­er and edi­tor in Oak­land, CA. He is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at the Eco­nom­ic Hard­ship Report­ing Project.  He con­tributes to The New York Times, City Lab and Cal­i­for­nia Sun­day Mag­a­zine, among oth­er pub­li­ca­tions.Gema Galiana is a photographer/​videographer from Spain, who is cur­rent­ly based in Los Ange­les. In 2017, she won first prize in the Insti­tute for Non­prof­it News’ annu­al pho­to­graph contest.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH