Washington Construction Company Fined After Worker Dies in Fall From Columbia River bridge

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A Bellingham construction company is facing more than a quarter million dollars in fines from the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries after a worker fell to his death in 2021 from a bridge over the Columbia River near Vantage.

Labor and Industries announced that it is fining Boss Construction nearly $284,000 for not ensuring safeguards were in place to keep workers from falling off the Beverly Railroad bridge, according to a news release Thursday, Jan. 27.

Gabriel Zelaya, 39, plunged 70 feet to his death on Aug. 3, 2021, while working to restore the historic bridge, Kittitas County officials said at the time.

"Zelaya was employed by a private contractor working on the new concrete decking of the historic Beverly railroad trestle, which will link portions of the Palouse-to-Cascades trail on either side of the Columbia River," county officials said in a news release.

Labor and Industries cited Boss Construction with two "egregious serious willful" violations after state inspectors determined the company was not ensuring workers were using fall protection on the day Zelaya died or multiple other days, according to Thursday's release.

"Managers and a foreman were working side-by-side with workers — none of them wearing fall protection," Labor and Industries' Assistant Director for the Division of Occupational Safety and Health Craig Blackwood said in the release. "That tells us the employer knowingly allowed employees to work on the bridge without using the required safety equipment."

Employee interviews revealed a lack of fall protection during the Beverly Railroad bridge project and revealed a lack of safety enforcement before the fatal fall, according to Thursday's release.

Inspectors found a catenary line, which is a horizontal line anchored at each end that workers can attach to for safety, was only installed on one side of the bridge deck, the release stated, which left approximately 200 feet on each side of the bridge that workers had no line they could attach to while walking the bridge. The other side of the bridge had no catenary line, leaving it completely unguarded for the full span.

Additionally, guardrails had been removed a few months before the fatal incident, according to the release.

Boss also was cited for not having a rescue boat immediately available and for not having ring buoys with ropes or life vests, which are required for work over water where there is not fall protection, the release states.

Boss has until Feb. 8 to appeal the citation and fines, and any money that is paid will go into the workers' compensation supplemental fund, which helps workers and families who have died on the job.

The Bellingham Herald has reached out to Boss Construction asking for comment about the fines and what Labor and Industries reported.

The work was being done on the bridge under a contract with the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, which also was fined in a separate incident for having an employee on the bridge without fall protection, according to the release.