Sonoma County fire debris subcontractor cited in hauler’s death

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The state’s workplace safety agency has cited a Chico-based general contractor for serious violations after an investigation into the December death of a fire debris hauler at the Sonoma County landfill revealed the truck underwent unauthorized modifications that allowed it to roll backward and kill the man.

Ezekiel Jackson Sumner Jr., 60, of Paradise died Dec. 15 while dropping off his debris at the dump site west of Cotati. He had worked as a truck driver for nearly four decades, and was employed by Randy Hill Construction. He was on his third day of work for the company when the Peterbilt truck malfunctioned and crushed him as he tried to reattach the rig to the trailer.

Cal OSHA immediately began an investigation into the company, which also operates under the name RHC Equipment LLC and was working as a subcontractor for AshBritt Inc. In its Feb. 20 report, OSHA found three violations, including that RHC failed to ensure a rear starter hot-wired directly to the battery — “bypassing all safety devices that would have prevented the truck from starting” — was up to code, resulting in Sumner’s death.

The report also named a second serious violation of failing to perform inspections at the start of each shift on all vehicles to certify they are safe and free of defects before being placed into service. RHC was cited for failing to inspect and maintain fire extinguishers on two fleet trucks, as well.

The citations led to fines totaling $32,450 for the 40-employee business — and a demand for corrective actions. RHC appealed the findings, which an OSHA spokesman said Wednesday is common among cited businesses, before accepting a settlement in late March that upheld the violations, but dropped the total penalty to $11,700.

“The citations remain serious,” said Frank Polizzi, public information officer for the California Department of Industrial Relations, which oversees the state’s OSHA division. “Some factors were changed, but the main part of Cal OSHA’s inspection was affirmed... (The employer) is also responsible for the daily checks to make sure that everything is operating properly.”

Reached Wednesday, RHC owner Bruce Fields declined comment.

A family member of Sumner’s also declined comment.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or at kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

Editor's note: This story has been revised to modify a statement from Frank Polizzi, public information officer for the California Department of Industrial Relations. After publication, he clarified Thursday that the OSHA inspection had not confirmed who made the unauthorized modifications to the truck. The employer was ultimately responsible, he said.

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