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OSHA’s reach falls short of nonprofits

Mel Hechel fell through a hole in an under-construction building Sept. 2. He died two days later at Theda Clark Medical Center in Neenah.
The hole at the Seymour construction site did not comply with Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards. But Hechel, 64, was volunteering for the Greater Fox Cities Area Habitat for Humanity at the time, and OSHA can’t enforce its rules on construction sites where only volunteers work.
Hechel was the founder and owner of M.M. Hechel Construction, Appleton.
When the Seymour Police Department called the Appleton Area OSHA office on the day of the accident, OSHA officers said they could not get involved, said Seymour Police Chief Richard Buntrock.
“We conducted the investigation, and we determined that it was an accident,” he said.
Hechel died from a head injury he received after falling into the basement through a ground-level hole cut for a staircase. The hole, which Buntrock estimated was 8 feet 3 inches by 4 feet 6 inches, was covered with a piece of plywood three-fourths of an inch thick. The hole was one story deep.
It was marked and identified during safety meetings the morning of the accident before volunteers began building interior walls around the staircase, said John Weyenberg, executive director of the Habitat chapter. But the plywood broke when Hechel stood on it.
Federal OSHA regulations require contractors to mark holes and cover them with something that supports whatever passes over, said Dave Marx, safety specialist in the Appleton OSHA office. The thickness of the plywood Hechel fell through was not a sufficient covering for a hole that size, Marx said after learning about the site conditions.
“It should’ve been completely blocked off,” he said.
The Fox Cities Habitat chapter, as a standard practice, blocks off holes for stairways, but, in this case, it wasn’t possible to cordon off the hole while walls were going up around it, Weyenberg said. He said the chapter updates and revises its safety standards (PDF) each year and will consider changes after last week’s accident.
Weyenberg couldn’t say if OSHA should have jurisdiction over volunteer sites.
“It’s a very good question,” he said. “To be honest, I don’t know that I can adequately answer that just because I’m not 100 percent familiar with how OSHA regulates for-profit operations.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t track volunteer injuries, but a 2005 Centers for Disease Control study, the most recent to offer such statistics, said 501 volunteers out of 59 million died from accidents between 1993 and 2002. Construction laborers accounted for 16 of them. Volunteer firefighters were far and away the highest, with 185 deaths.
Richard Fairfax, OSHA director of enforcement programs, said he’s not aware of anyone within the agency arguing inspectors should be able to issue citations for regulation violations on volunteer sites. Federal law only allows enforcement actions on work “performed by an employee of an employer.”
But the agency offers safety assistance for volunteers, Fairfax said. Inspectors can walk onto Habitat for Humanity sites, point out hazards and offer suggestions to improve safety, he said.
OSHA’s home office in Washington, D.C., encourages that sort of assistance and asks nonprofits to call local OSHA offices for guidance, said Fairfax, who volunteers on Habitat projects.
“The people in OSHA are all health and safety professionals,” he said. “From the aspect of providing advice, we don’t care if someone’s an employee, an employer or a volunteer.”
Weyenberg said he’s sure the Fox Cities chapter can benefit from OSHA’s input. He said the situation leading up to Hechel’s accident was a rare case.
“It was just at that certain stage of construction,” Weyenberg said, “and it was just a freak accident that it happened.”

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