Hundreds of Idahoans have lost their lives ‘for a paycheck’

Mario had a wife and two kids. Patrick was saving up for a down payment on a house.

By: - May 7, 2021 4:30 am
Patrick Anderson and cousin

Patrick L. Anderson was an adventurous nature lover who enjoyed taking photos on his travels. He posted this photo of himself and his cousin on social media, with the caption, “I get to spend all weekend with my little buddy.” (Photo courtesy of Anderson family)

Patrick L. Anderson was 25 when he died. He worked on oil rigs. He worked as a wildland firefighter. Those jobs, he survived. It was moving dirt in a residential development north of Boise that killed him on Oct. 5 — his first day at work.

Mario Vazquez Vergara was 35 when he died. He loved his widow, Maria Hernandez, so much that he painted their house pink for her.

He said, ‘I don’t care if it’s pink or not. I just care that you like it,’” Hernandez said.

But on Jan. 27, he didn’t come home to Hernandez and their two children. His body had been pulled into the conveyor of a truck at a sugar beet farm in Aberdeen while he was trying to fix the belt.

Anderson and Vazquez Vergara are two of more than 600 Idaho workers who died from on-the-job injuries or illnesses since 2003, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Many of them worked in industries that help drive Idaho’s economy: construction, agriculture, food processing and forestry.

The coronavirus added another hazard for frontline workers — some of whom didn’t survive the pandemic long enough to see vaccines arrive in Idaho.

“Countless workers have been exposed to this potentially life-threatening illness in order to bring home a paycheck and to provide the products and services essential to the rest of us,” David Kearns, Boise-based area director for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said at a recent memorial event in Boise.

Unlike almost all its neighboring states, Idaho has no state-run worker protection program. As a result, eight inspectors employed by OSHA are responsible for enforcing workplace safety for nearly all non-government workplaces across Idaho.

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Kearns said he can’t lobby for laws or protections at the state level. But, he added, “I mean, it would be nice to see there being maybe a little better bar for entry into the construction field. But at this point in time, basically, you get a pickup truck and, you know, a dog and a nail gun, and you’re suddenly a contractor, and there’s just no training …”

Safety sign at a residential construction site in Hidden Springs, Boise
A sign posted in Hidden Springs reminds the residential construction workers who arrive each day at the worksite to follow safety rules. (Photo: Audrey Dutton, Idaho Capital Sun)

Idaho’s OSHA team is small and doesn’t have the resources to police every work site, Kearns said. That’s why he loves to hear from employers and businesses that want to learn how to protect their employees — and who recognize that following safety rules also protects their businesses, their reputation and their insurance premiums.

“This has to be a community pulling together to try to do the right thing,” Kearns said.

“We can do so much better, instead of unnecessarily putting our workers at risk, to process and make our food and get the milk and harvest, and build our homes and construct our roads,” he said. “We can do so much better.”

 

One man dead, and other lives turned upside down

Mario Vazquez Vergara and Maria Hernandez met in a park many years ago, fell in love and built a life together.

He worked at farms in the American Falls and Aberdeen area. She stayed at home and cared for their children, one of whom has Down syndrome. When Mario wasn’t at work, he would cook bread or watch action movies with the kids.

When he died, they not only lost a husband and father — they lost the family’s sole provider.

Hernandez found a job at a Napa Auto Parts store, where she works from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

When she finishes her shift, she cooks and cleans and helps the kids. She sees reminders of Mario in every corner of their home.

For me, my life is never gonna be the same. For me and my kids,” she said in a phone interview last week, during an afternoon break at work. “It just takes half a second, your life can change forever.”

Mario’s employer, CoMa Farms, paid a $5,461 penalty for the serious violation of failing to put safeguards in place around the equipment that killed him.

Hernandez says she was concerned about safety training at the job, which Mario had started months earlier. She says he came home one day and told her there’d been a safety meeting, but that it was conducted only in English.

But Mario and most of his coworkers spoke Spanish, she reminded him. “Why didn’t you speak up? You should have (spoken) up. … You should understand what the farmer is telling you about safety.”

The Idaho Capital Sun attempted to reach the owner of CoMa Farms by phone, but wasn’t able to interview him. He didn’t respond to a message routed through the manager at a hardware store he owns.

What to do if your workplace is unsafe

“In a perfect world, (someone with a safety concern would) work it out with their employer,” said OSHA Area Director David Kearns. When that’s not an option, there are multiple ways to notify OSHA of hazardous working conditions.

  • Call the OSHA hotline at 800-321-6742.
  • Visit the OSHA.gov website and fill out a complaint form.
  • Send a letter to the Idaho OSHA office at 1387 S. Vinnell Way, Suite 218, Boise, Idaho 83709
  • Call the Idaho OSHA office at 208-321-2960 to speak with an officer.

Current employees who want OSHA to inspect their workplace must provide a name and contact information, so that OSHA can follow up on their complaint and conduct an inspection based on their allegations.

“We always keep everybody’s names anonymous,” Kearns said. “It’s not the sort of thing we share with an employer.”

Complaints filed without a name contact information are considered informal. OSHA handles informal complaints by reaching out to the employer and asking the employer to respond to the allegation, as opposed to doing an inspection.

Kearns said it’s not uncommon for Idaho employers to give important safety training and information in English, even though their workers are primarily non-English speakers. Instead, the training should be done “in a manner, means and language that workers understand,” he said.

He said Mario’s death was captured on video and that it was horrific to witness.

When his coworkers noticed his body had been wrapped around the conveyor, “the whole shop went berserk, as you can imagine,” Kearns said. “And you see the owner coming out, and he’s trying to cut away with a knife the layers of this conveyor belt, and you see other workers in the corner just … walking in circles because they are so disturbed about this.”

The accident could have been prevented by simply turning off the conveyor, he said. It may have slowed down production, but it may have saved Mario’s life.

When a worker dies on the job, it affects everyone, Kearns said.

“I’ve had a shocking number of times where I’ve learned, after a (workplace) tragedy, of another suicide that occurred, whether it was a family member or somebody with survivor’s guilt,” Kearns said in a recent interview. “And the way it can just turn communities upside down, and how it’s hard for employers. This is 2021. We don’t need to be rolling the dice and gambling. If you want to gamble, drive across the border and spend some time in the slots or the craps table in Jackpot, but stop gambling with our friends, family, neighbors, workers.”

COVID-19 killed frontline workers. ‘Most of these were preventable’

The coronavirus has infected more than 10,000 of Idaho’s health care workers since it arrived in Idaho last spring, according to state data.

OSHA is building a database of workers across the U.S. who died of COVID-19. The database currently shows no deaths in Idaho, but since August, two Idaho nursing homes have reported staff dying of COVID-19 to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As worker safety and public health experts have noted, out-of-control outbreaks in U.S. cities and rural areas make it hard to prove whether a person was infected on the job, or at home with family, or out in the community.

“In the U.S., of the over 32 million confirmed cases and the over 570,000 COVID-19 deaths, we don’t know how many of these were a result of workplace exposure,” Kearns said. “I know that many, many were. And even more tragic, most of these were preventable.”

During the pandemic, OSHA fielded dozens of complaints about Idaho employers.

“Employees who have tested positive for COVID are required to work in close proximity and for extended periods of time with coworkers while contagious,” said the OSHA record of a complaint against a Nampa nursing home.

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“Allegedly, management does not enforce the proper wear of face coverings and masks to prevent the spread of (COVID-19),” said the record of a complaint against a Boise restaurant. “Allegedly, management requires employees displaying symptoms of COVID-19 to come to work.”

Another complaint against a Meridian senior living facility alleged that a “caregiver tested positive for COVID-19 and employees were not properly notified.” It said the employer failed to enforce social distancing and proper mask use.

‘Safety is everything.’ Parents hope son’s construction death prompts change

Patrick Anderson came to Boise for a job. He wanted to settle down and hoped to save up money for a down payment on a house.

The “silly and outgoing” young man was “full of energy, full of life, and trying to cut his way,” said his father, Patrick E. Anderson. The Andersons called their son “PJ” for short.

Anderson was an amateur photographer who loved to capture images of wildlife, nature and landscapes. He took his camera to work with him as he worked as a “roughneck” in the oil fields of North Dakota, and when he worked as a wildland firefighter in Idaho.

 

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A post shared by Patrick Anderson (@justaroughneck)

Last year, while working in the Bakken oil fields, he was among the millions of Americans laid off due to the pandemic.

He stayed with family in Montana for a while, then applied for a job at Laser Land Leveling — a subcontractor that prepared ground for new homes in the Hidden Springs neighborhood.

His parents say he embellished his work experience on his job application.

“He had only worked on small grading equipment, and what he was put on was a 90-ton, huge piece of equipment that he’d never been on,” his mother Heidi said. “Nobody called and verified his experience.”

The Andersons work in the trucking industry, where safety rules are stringent. As employers, they run background checks and verify training and prior employment, they said.

“When this happened with Patrick, we were just floored that there aren’t more standards of training,” his father said.

Patrick was driving a scraper on Oct. 5 when it began to slide off a slope. His father believes Patrick panicked because he didn’t know how to stop the scraper as it went off a 10-story decline.

“We read the autopsy; that boy died scared,” he said. “It was a gruesome death. He had to have died scared. He was tore apart and crushed.”

Around 8:30 p.m. that night, the local coroner and a police officer showed up at the Andersons’ door in Cheyenne, Wyoming, they said. Heidi Anderson was the only one home when they told her their son was dead.

“It was absolutely a shock, complete disbelief,” she said. “And then for me it was, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to tell his dad?’”

Patrick and Heidi Anderson in Boise at a Workers Memorial Day event
Patrick and Heidi Anderson of Cheyenne, Wyoming, lost their son in a scraper rollover at a Boise construction site. “Seven months after his passing, it hasn’t gotten any easier for either of us. He had his whole life in front of him,” Patrick Anderson said. “We just feel there could have been a little more done to prevent this.” (Photo: Audrey Dutton, Idaho Capital Sun)

When the elder Patrick Anderson arrived home later that night, he walked in to find Heidi and their daughter sitting quietly. Learning his son was dead, he said, “No, that can’t be true. He’s supposed to just show up in my shop one day and say, ‘Hey, what’s up?’”

The Andersons say the company Patrick worked for has been kind to them, honoring their son with a memorial near the place where he died. The company’s owner also set up a GoFundMe to raise money for funeral and other expenses. (Company officials declined a request for an interview.) They say everyone they’ve had contact with — from OSHA to law enforcement to the cremation service — has been “wonderful to our family.”

But that doesn’t bring back their son.

“I’m still in shock, I think, that he’s gone,” said the elder Patrick Anderson. “And I’m still in disbelief that there isn’t more guidelines for these employers when they hire people, like there is in the trucking industry.”

The couple’s “biggest fear” is that Patrick will be forgotten.

They want Idaho lawmakers and regulators to consider narrowing the gap between what’s required in industries like trucking and what’s required in construction.

The machine Patrick was driving is heavier than two semi trucks and trailers combined, Patrick E. Anderson said. Yet, the young man was allowed to operate it without a license or the training required for truck drivers.

“Verification of prior employment, and verification of experience … should be a direction for this Legislature to go,” Patrick E. Anderson said. “I think if he’d had some more experience and more training, he would still be here today.”

“We are employers too, and we check out our employees before we even talk about bringing them into our company,” Heidi Anderson said. “Safety is everything. Everything.”

The Andersons have spent the months since Patrick’s death trying to process it — and piecing together the final months of his life. He left behind a laptop full of photos documenting his travels in the West.

“Nobody should have to lose a child in any kind of accident, but especially a workplace accident,” Patrick E. Anderson said. “Because nobody leaves home for work at the beginning of their day thinking they’ll never come home.”

Idaho workers killed from job-related injuries and illness since mid-2019

This list, based on information from OSHA, is not comprehensive. It includes only industries within OSHA’s jurisdiction; it doesn’t include worker deaths in transportation, mining, local or state government or self-employed jobs. With exception of three National Guard pilots whose deaths were publicly announced, it doesn’t include people who died in the military. It also does not include any possible deaths from on-the-job exposure to the COVID-19 virus.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Audrey Dutton
Audrey Dutton

Audrey Dutton, senior investigative reporter, joined the Idaho Capital Sun after 10 years at the Idaho Statesman. Her favorite topics to cover include health care, business, consumer protection issues and white collar crime. Dutton hails from Twin Falls. She attended college at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and received a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University in New York City. Before coming home to Idaho, Dutton worked as a journalist in Minnesota, New York, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Dutton's work has earned dozens of state, regional and national awards for investigative reporting, health care and business reporting, radio journalism, data visualization and much more.

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