Renewable energy developer RES and two contractors were condemned over the “heartbreaking and completely preventable” death of a wind farm worker who died while trying to rescue a colleague after a trench collapsed during construction of a US wind farm.

RES, its affiliate RES System 3 and a medical contractor were slammed for presiding over “a recipe for disaster” by the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries (L&I), as it handed out fines totalling more than $500,000 over the incident at the Skookumchuck wind project near Olympia, southwest of Seattle , in January this year.

L&I said the fatal incident began when part of a 15-foot trench collapsed while a worker was inside positioning a bore pipe, leaving him unable to move. Another member of the team jumped into help but was then trapped by a second, larger collapse.

A third employee caught up in the incident managed to raise the alarm, but despite an effort involving up to nine people the rescuer, who worked for a third-party labour agency, was pronounced dead at the scene. The worker involved in the original collapse was taken to hospital with serious injuries.

'Flagrant violations'

L&I said in a statement: “This incident is heartbreaking and frustrating. This fatality and the hospitalisation of a worker were completely preventable. Trenching at this depth, in the dead of winter after days of rain, in unstable soil with no trench box, was a recipe for disaster.

“These violations were flagrant and they nearly lead to a multiple-fatality incident. Sadly, they did cost one employee his life. For these reasons, the maximum penalty allowable under safety laws is being issued for the two most directly related willful violations.”

RES was fined $184,800, RES System 3 $360,874 and medical services contractor GEMS $4,200.

L&I said RES System 3 “acted indifferently to the site hazards and the rules, including regularly disregarding their internal safety policies and procedures, promoting a work policy designed to circumvent the requirements of the code, and providing inadequate direction to a crew doing inherently dangerous work”.

The contractors, who have 15 days to appeal the fines, were building the 136MW Skookumchuck project for Southern Power, which RES sold the wind farm to late last year.

RES said in a statement sent to Recharge: “We are heartbroken by the circumstances of this situation. RES fully cooperated with the Washington Department of Labor and Industries Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) during the course of this investigation.

“We strongly disagree with the alleged violations outlined in the citations, and will contest the citations in the appropriate regulatory framework.”

Note: Update adds RES comment