A Hayward-based company has been ordered to pay thousands of dollars in fines for safety violations related to the death of a tree trimmer at the Stanford West Apartments last May, according to public documents.
California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) issued the $18,600 citation and fines against Arborwell Inc. on Nov. 16. The penalties are for a May 19 incident when an employee was killed after his climbing rope became caught in a chipper. The company plans to appeal the fine, a spokesman said.
Arborwell crew members were pruning a line of sycamore trees at the apartment complex, which is located at 700 Clark Way. Jesus Silva Romero, 36, of San Jose, and three others were assigned to prune trees at the green space or lawn area at a child care center on the property. After their lunch break, one of the employees moved a truck and chipper between two trees. Romero climbed one of the trees, another employee entered the other and they began trimming, according to the Cal/OSHA report.
The employee who had moved the chipper began moving a pile of branches from under Romero's tree to add to the chipper. He noticed that Romero's climbing rope was entangled in some of the cut branches at the far end of the pile. He did not think he had gathered any of the rope when he took the branches to the chipper, he told investigators. As he turned away, he heard a loud sound. Romero was hanging from the line, immobile, after his rope had been fed into the chipper, according to the Cal/OSHA report. Romeron sustained head, neck and torso injuries as he was pulled through the branches by the rope. Workers sought to rescue him. A Santa Clara County Medical Examiner-Coroner's Office report found he died from blunt-force trauma to his head and neck.
Romero had worked for the company for 10 months and met the criteria to be a qualified tree worker. He was a foreman, according to Cal/OSHA.
Employees who witnessed the incident acknowledged that an unnecessary length of rope was beneath the climber and that it is very common to see the climbers' ropes underneath or entangled in piles of brush cut from the tree, according to the report.
Romero was using a 120-foot rope. An investigator estimated that a 60-foot tail of the rope would have been unused, considering that it was looped around a limb 30 feet high. Arborwell's established safety plan also required a chipper to be 10 feet past the end of a climber's rope. The crew’s two other foremen could have used a shorter rope, positioned the chipper beyond reach of any climbing rope or stopped chipper operations when it was near the climbers, thus preventing the accident, according to the report.
"The accident occurred in a work environment of foreseeable hazards and commonly observed conditions," an investigator concluded.
Arborwell spokesman Larry Kamer said the company would be appealing the report and penalties.
"We do not believe the report accurately characterizes what happened, and we want to reiterate with Cal/OSHA that Arborwell has one of the best safety and training programs in the industry," he said.
"This incident hit everyone at the company pretty hard," he said, noting that Romero was well liked. "It's a tragic accident that should've never happened. We have really tried to learn from it and to make sure that something like this never happens again."
Company representatives met with Romero's family and provided funds to defray burial costs and other expenses after the incident. It also provided grief counselors to employees, he said.
Arborwell is a tree-management company with locations in the Bay Area, Sacramento, Seattle and San Diego. The company employs about 200 people, according to Cal/OSHA. Kamer said the accident was the company’s first fatality in its 21-year history. Arborwell has appeared in the Cal/OSHA database for violations three previous times in the past four years.
Arborwell was initially fined $9,000 on March 19, 2018, for four violations stemming from an inspection, including citations for not having adequate first-aid materials readily available for employees on every job; failure to have wheel rims serviced in accordance with a manufacturer's recommendations; failing to include methods or procedures for correcting unsafe or unhealthy conditions based on the severity of the hazard in its accident-prevention program; and not providing adequate traffic control to prevent injuries to tree workers. The company is also appealing that fine.
In Jan. 22, 2014, an employee hired through the Irvine office did not have a stopper knot at the end of his climbing rope and fell 20 feet to the ground, suffering a compound ankle fracture. He was hospitalized for two days after surgery. An initial $750 fine was dropped.
In a separate, undefined accident through its West Sacramento office, the company was initially fined $5,715 on Feb. 14, 2014, and settled for $2,780 for violations related to cardiopulmonary resuscitation training and proper procedures related to hoisting a tree worker by crane into a tree.