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Injured worker says leaders of Skookumchuck project fostered culture of recklessness

An injured worker with the Skookumchuck Wind Project is alleging that leading contractors are fostering and promoting an unsafe work culture that is resulting in preventable work injuries and incidents on the remote site where a 24-year-old Chehalis man died earlier this year.

One incident involving a “serious leg injury” is currently being investigated by the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries.

Blake Bennett, a safety and health manager with Mountain Crane Services, told the Nisqually Valley News that certain incidents were “swept under the carpet” by Renewable Energy Systems Americas Inc. (RES-Americas) contractors and that project leaders attempted to curtail public reporting of work-related incidents throughout his five-month tenure on the project.

“It’s probably the most dangerous wind farm I’ve ever been on,” Bennett, 37, said. “I’ve been on 105 wind farms. I’ve been doing wind projects since I was 18.”

In a statement, Alicia Rivera, the director of marketing and communication with RES Group, said the company is unable to comment on the claims outlined by Bennett due to pending litigation.

Rivera wrote that the company was unable to comment on the number of work-place injuries reported at the site due to the same reason they’re unable to comment on Bennett’s claims.

The project is slated to be completed sometime this year, and Rivera wrote that 37 of the 38 wind turbines so far have been erected.

Bennett said he was injured in April after a truck carrying a wind turbine component slid into a ditch and tipped over after speeding up the hill. The crash resulted in Bennett and other workers jumping from the vehicle and trailer.

The 8-foot fall ultimately caused major trauma to his shoulders, neck and lower back after he landed on his head and back, and the resulting injury put him out of work for four months, he said.

Though the incident took place at about 3 p.m., records with the Southeast Thurston Fire Authority show that it took nearly five hours to get him into an ambulance after driving him down the hill to the laydown yard.

“I can’t even pick my little girl up or anything,” he said. “Life has been really rough the last couple months.”

In January, 24-year-old Chehalis resident Jonathan Stringer died while attempting to save a coworker from a trench collapse. The two were attempting to get a sleeve underneath a road culvert to install a cable for the turbines in snowy, slick conditions.

The 38-turbine project was put on hold for about three weeks after Stringer’s death, Bennett said. The project was many months behind schedule by the time of his death, and more than six months behind schedule when Bennett was injured.

Since then, the project has come under major scrutiny, both locally and from state agencies.

The three contractors involved in Stringer’s death were ultimately fined more than $500,000 by Labor and Industries for “numerous safety violations,” with the assistant director in charge of LNI’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health calling the incident “completely preventable.”

RES Group is currently in the process of contesting the fines issued by Labor and Industries.

Stringer’s estate also filed a lawsuit against RES-Americas, its primary contractor and Weyerhaeuser Company following the incident.

Bennett said he and the RES-Americas safety team attempted to warn Southern Power, the majority stakeholder in the project, and other leadership about the dangerous environment on at least three different instances before Stringer’s death.

Bennett claims all warnings went ignored.

“I don’t know for sure, but it just feels like my thing was swept under the carpet. It’s, like, how many other things have been swept under the carpet? It just seems like an ongoing thing, and even after someone got killed up there, they never really fixed the problem,” Bennett said. “It was just all about the bottom dollar at that point.

“It’s been a time crunch, from beginning to end.”

Bennett’s Incident

Driving along U.S. Highway 12, small turbines can be seen from the roadway in the distance. Looking up at them, though, there are many things that race through Bennett’s head.

“It scares me every day that people are there,” he said from the porch of his rambler on a recent sunny day, the nearby Cowlitz River humming in the background. “When I drive (by), every time I look up and see that wind farm, I just think ‘I hope everyone’s OK. I hope everyone’s doing well.’”

Many of the contractors work in the remote, dense forest surrounding the Skookumchuck Ridge. If accidents happen, workers usually have to drive 30 minutes or more down Forest Service roads just to get to a paved surface – the closest hospitals in Olympia are often another 40-minute drive away.

Though he’s dedicated his life to working on these wind farms, his injury at the Skookumchuck Wind Project was the final straw. Bennett says he plans on eventually getting out of the business, though he’s not sure what line of work he’ll do next.

He’s currently getting paid for full-time work through an agreement reached between Labor and Industries and his contractor, he says.

His injury took place on Friday, April 24. It was a cloudy workday, and Bennett said their goal for the day was to haul multiple turbine blades up the narrow roads to an assembly site.

As a safety and health manager with a RES-Americas contractor, Bennett’s main job was to schedule logistics of transporting parts and create a safety plan, he says.

Bennett said that, at the start of that month, contractors had put into place a system to truck up multiple blades at a time on narrow dirt roads.

“The safety and quality just went out of the window,” he said. “Blades that were meant to go up the mountain 10 miles per hour were going up the mountain at 30 miles per hour.”

He said RES and its contractors were already having a difficult time hauling up the blades due to the loose gravel in the roads. There was also talk of the upcoming fire season and the potential impact that could have on the project.

Between about 3 and 4 p.m. on April 24, as they were in process of delivering a blade, Bennett said they approached a fairly sharp turn when their truck slid into the ditch. The driver was reportedly going faster than the allotted speed limit when the incident occurred.

As the truck tilted into the trees, Bennett and the other workers got the impression that the truck was going to slide down the hill – so, everyone jumped off.

Bennett’s seat on the trailer was rigged to the rear in order to operate a hydraulic unit on the trailer. As everyone began to jump out into the road, Bennett said he leapt from the high side of the trailer, landing on his head and back.

As he was receiving treatment, Bennett said they asked him if he wanted an escort in the company vehicle to the hospital. Despite management’s insistence that they drive him, he turned that down, he said, opting instead to be transported via ambulance.

Bennett said it was common practice for site management to opt for company-assisted transport in order to keep the incident from becoming public.

“They get those guys off the job site as quick as they can,” he said.

Once the crew was able to get him into the Southeast Thurston Fire Authority ambulance at around 8 p.m., Bennett was transferred to Providence St. Peter Hospital where he was treated for his injuries.

Even today, he’s still recovering. Bennett said that most of the pain is still concentrated in his back, making even the smallest tasks, such as fishing from his yard on the Cowlitz River, painful for him on certain days. Despite his injury, he’s still walking.

Bennett said spending time with his four kids and gardening when he feels well has been getting him through his recovery and the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis.

“I have some days where I feel like I could go back to work today, and follow that with, for no reason, back pain again,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll ever do that type of work anymore … I think I’ve finally broke myself up enough that, well, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Since his injury, Bennett says he’s been somewhat ex-communicated by the site. One site-wide email, sent out June 24, told other workers not to talk with him for fear of litigation. Bennett said he wasn’t even considering legal action at the time.

Other Injuries and Reports

During his time on the wind farm, from November to April, Bennett claims he heard of or witnessed at least 15 incidents or work-related injuries, though no solid evidence has come forth to suggest that.

The alleged incidents include vehicle rollovers, jumping off vehicles and cranes, and mishandling of vehicles, he said. Part of this is due to the dangerous environment in which contractors are working in, with some due to negligence.

One incident involved a worker jumping from a crane onto a platform, Bennett said. He ultimately missed and fell to the ground (Bennett said it’s possible this incident could be the same one that Labor and Industries is investigating, but he’s unsure). In dispatch documents, Southeast Thurston was called to the RES-Americas laydown yard on May 29 for a “possible broken leg.”

“When they have those, they do a quick shutdown and don’t let anyone move around,” Bennett said. “They go radio silent.”

Bennett said the site has also experienced a number of dump truck rollovers and even a diesel truck rollover that allegedly spilled into a nearby creek.

“There was a little bit of a battle there because it shut us down for two days,” he said.

New L&I Investigation

Washington State Labor and Industries is also investigating another incident at the Skookumchuck Wind Project.

The case stems from a worker who sustained a serious leg injury after a work-place related incident involving a drilling machine earlier this year, Labor and Industries spokesman Tim Church wrote in an email.

The investigation into Advanced Boring Specialist Inc. is currently ongoing, Church wrote.