Santa Fe worker’s death brings safety citations against city

Tobin ‘Toby’ Williams

More than two years after Tobin “Toby” Williams was electrocuted while working on a light fixture at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center, city administrators and union officials are jousting over whether enough has been done to ensure workers’ safety.

The city contends it has implemented new safety protocols and provided training to ensure workers are protected from a situation like the deadly one that befell Williams, who was electrocuted while working alone on a lift at the convention center in April 2019. He suffered severe injuries and later died at a Denver hospital. He was 27.

But leaders with the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union that covers most of the city of Santa Fe’s workforce, say more could be done to improve workers’ safety.

“We thought there would a full-blow safety program that would give every single employee involved training on protocols and revamp all the procedures and policies that have been put in place,” union Vice President Gil Martinez said. ‘We haven’t seen that.”

City spokesman Dave Herndon wrote that since Williams’ death, the city has implemented a slew of changes, including evaluating training practices and facilities considered to be the highest risk for safety violations.

After Williams’ death, the state Environment Department’s Operation Safety and Health Bureau opened an investigation and found the city had committed multiple violations, including using untrained workers to replace electrical equipment. A review of Williams’ employment history also revealed he did not have the minimum qualifications to complete electrical work.

In 2020, the city and the Environment Department reached a settlement, with the city agreeing to pay $120,000 in fines. About half of the fines were to be dedicated to training and safety improvement, per the union’s request.

Lee Hunt, the attorney for the Williams family, said at the time he didn’t believe the fine was sufficient punishment. He and Williams’ family members could not be reached for comment for this story.

According to the terms of the settlement, the trainings were supposed to be completed within six months, but Herndon wrote the city received an additional six months to finish.

The city met with the state Construction Industries Division — the agency that regulates construction activities, permits and licensing — to establish an action plan to increase electrical safety.

The sessions, held in June 2019, led to job title changes to clarify who is qualified to complete journeyman work, said Public Works Department Director Regina Wheeler. The city, she added, also upped pay for journeymen, and established workers with that classification must oversee apprentices.

“Workplace safety is the utmost priority for the City as an employer,” Herndon wrote in an email. “The City works constantly on an ongoing basis to ensure workplace safety. Workers are encouraged to report any conditions that make them feel unsafe to their supervisors, with confidence that the sources of their concern will be addressed promptly.”

Herndon wrote the work to overhaul certain safety procedures began in 2019 and continued through 2020 “despite challenges due to the pandemic,” and included a new energy control policy approved in July. The policy was developed between fall 2019 and early 2020.

Martinez said he couldn’t remember any significant training in 2020, but acknowledged COVID-19’s impact on potential training plans.

“They have been having just recently some training going on,” Martinez said. “I don’t recall anything happening in 2020, especially not during the pandemic. Especially $60,000 worth.”

As COVID-19 social-distancing guidelines changed, the city pivoted to include distance learning and online trainings when possible, Herndon wrote.

In March, the city completed Occupational Safety and Health Administration electrical standards training for employees who are qualified to work on electrical equipment, as well as their supervisors. A month later, the city completed a variety of trainings, Herndon wrote. Trainings to ensure equipment is shut down and inoperable during repairs was completed in the past few weeks.

According to the city, there have been no electrical accidents since Williams’ death.

Still, Maxine Sandoval, the union’s safety committee chairwoman, said additional training has taken too long to complete, and should have been expedited following Williams’ death.

“It’s taken them two years to get some training implemented,” Sandoval said. “Two years is way too long to pay attention to what is going on with the city.”

Sandoval acknowledged the union has partnered with the city to complete some OSHA trainings. Nevertheless, Sandoval said some union members have lodged complaints about difficulties getting certain safety equipment replaced in a timely manner.

Herndon wrote Miguel Vigil was hired as senior safety specialist in September 2019, and has been providing job hazard assessment to help identify what personal protective equipment is needed to perform a task.

On May 14, the union submitted a complaint to the state’s Operational Safety and Health Bureau, alleging a series of safety violations at Santa Fe Wastewater Treatment Plant, including slip hazards next to open acid vats, exposed wires and open acid vats.

In response, the Environment Department completed an inspection of the facility on May 21. According to union representatives, the agency has begun interviewing employees.

The city has said it would address any concerns raised by the bureau following the investigation.

(7) comments

John Onstad

Toby Williams was killed by the gross negligence of the City of Santa Fe, including his labor union.

He was totally unqualified to do the work when he was electrocuted.

If I were his family's lawyer, I'd sue for $150,000,000.

This article is a total merry-go-round of "passing the buck" authored by the SF New Mexican who seems to want to provide cover for the gross incompetence by the City and the union

This young man did not have to die for $15/hour.

This whole episode is pathetic.

I've been a licensed mechanical and electrical contractor in NM for 40 years.

John Onstad

Andrew Lucero

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Khal Spencer

Public Works org chart, at least the old one.

https://www.cityofsantamaria.org/home/showdocument?id=8441

I kind of doubt, looking at the org chart and the fact that Ms. Wheeler had only had the director position 8 or 9 months when this accident happened, that she is the cause of this. Its too easy to blame one person. Having worked in 3 big organizations that do potentially hazardous technical work, SUNY Stony Brook, LANL, and SOEST, I assert these institutional patterns form slowly and endure until something gets the institution's attention and someone else knocks the table over and forces a change. I'll stop there.

I mentioned earlier how LANL's safety culture was reformatted after the incidents leading to Pete Nanos shutting the place down. I had recently joined the lab and found it a very different place than academia (surprise, surprise). Back at the U of Hawaii, there was no safety culture that I could find; it was every person for him or her self. The stuff I did to keep my geochemistry lab running would make the safety people at LANL go into cardiac arrest. Not only did no one know what I was doing, but they wouldn't have understood it if I had told them. My lab had a pretty good safety record and at one point when we finally were getting the school inspected by the State of Hawaii occupatinal health and safety folks, the Dean appointed me as his hit man to inspect the labs and make sure they looked kosher.

But I've had my share of foul-ups. In grad school, I had an HF accident (trying to finish experiments at midnight to make an abstract deadline) and had to lecture the SUNY Stony Brook night shift emergency department staff on what HF was and what the emergency procedures were for an accident where I doused my hand with concentrated HF. At the U of Hawaii, the idea of industrial hygiene, if it was there at all, was invisible to me (and a few years ago, a post doc in my old school blew up her lab and lost an arm via a poorly designed pressurized flammable gas system). I used to change out the acid and alkali tanks on my laboratory's DI water ion exchangers by opening the doors at each end of the building utility corridor and let the Trade Winds blow the fumes away from me while I switched open tanks of fuming HCl. That worked great until one day when the wind shifted and I ended up in the ER. Everyone got mad at me for making the place look bad and taking risks. But only then did I get the funds to have a private contractor provide ready-made tanks for the lab. Glad it was only a few open wounds in my sinuses. I take a lot of responsibility for that foulup but as a freshly minted Ph.D., I didn't have the courage to pitch a fit and demand that a better system get installed.

These things are hard and its sad that it takes accidents to fix institutional problems, but that's human nature, I guess. As I said before, lets fix it now and keep someone else from getting hurt or killed. Or as the saying goes, never let a crisis go to waste.

Marsden DeLapp

Regina Wheeler was the CEO of the contractor that installed the 1.5 MW solar system at the Buckman Direct Diversion Project Pump station 2a. the contract required a 2 MW system and the contractor only installed 1.5 MW. The fence grounding could potentially injure or kill somebody. These issues were identified in the design review comments and the project final punchlist and were ignored.

But that is not the worst safety issue. The City’s water supply is at risk of failure. You can read the letter here:

https://www.delapp.com/public/2021-04-09_Letter.pdf

J Marsden DeLapp, PE

Marsden DeLapp

I wrote a letter in April to the Buckman Direct Diversion Board and copied the City who manages the BDD regarding an electrical installation defect that could kill somebody. I received no response.

Regina Wheeler was involved in creating this hazard by putting incompetent people in charge of electrical work.

J. Marsden DeLapp, PE

Khal Spencer

“Workplace safety is the utmost priority for the City as an employer,”

I read the articles about the working conditions Toby Williams experienced before he was killed. Sure, one can always have an accident even with a strong safety program; a strong safety program just makes them less likely by identifying hazards and building defenses in depth. When you allow energized building electrical work to be done in a large facility without a foolproof lockout/tagout procedure, by an unqualified individual, and without a two person rule or close supervision, what can possibly go wrong? This accident pointed to a lack of a strong safety culture, not an organization that puts safety first.

I wonder what other hazardous jobs have been run in the same half-@$$ed manner?

My suggestion to the city still stands. A very large nearby employer overhauled its safety programs after the infamous laser incident** some time ago (not to mention, several other foul-ups). If the city wants an external peer review of its safety programs, I know just where they can get it. Unless they already have done so.

Simple message to the city administration. Lets not kill anyone else this way, OK?

** https://permalink.lanl.gov/object/tr?what=info:lanl-repo/lareport/LA-UR-05-0282

Prince Michael Jauregui

Great comment, Mr. Spencer.

Welcome to the discussion.

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