A West Seattle construction company owner is facing jail time in a milestone case that’s holding an employer criminally responsible for a preventable worker death.
Alki Construction owner Phillip Numrich was sentenced today to 45 days in jail for his role in the 2016 trench collapse death of 36-year-old Harold Felton.
The criminal case followed a Washington Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) investigation that found Alki Construction knowingly ignored basic, common-sense safety rules that have been in place since the 1970s. If followed, those practices could have prevented Felton’s tragic death. L&I cited and fined the company for multiple workplace safety violations.
After a state Supreme Court decision cleared the way for prosecution, the King County Prosecutor moved forward with a felony charge of second-degree manslaughter. Numrich agreed to plead guilty to Attempted Reckless Endangerment and was sentenced today.
It is extremely rare for an employer to face jail time as a result of an on-the-job fatality. Joel Sacks, L&I Director, said, “The ultimate responsibility to keep workers out of needlessly dangerous situations lies with the employer. Trench safety standards have been in place since the 70s—there’s no excuse to justify ignoring them or any other workplace safety requirements. Employers must be held accountable when they put their workers' lives at risk.”
Numrich will also serve an 18-month probation that limits his contact with the Felton family and the type of work his company can perform. If he fails to meet the terms of that probation, he may be required to serve an additional 45-day jail term. Also, Alki Construction pleaded guilty to violations of the Washington Industrial Safety & Health Act and will pay a $25,000 fine. This is in addition to a fine issued by L&I in 2016 in connection with this investigation.
Safety violations led to fatal collapse
The facts of the case are particularly alarming. After several days of heavy rainfall, Numrich allowed work to go on in an eight to ten-foot deep trench, even though he had only brought enough shoring (safety equipment) to protect two of the four sides of the trench from a cave-in. In the construction industry, it is common knowledge that soil becomes less stable following heavy rains. When the sides collapsed, Felton was buried under more than six thousand pounds of dirt.
At the time, Numrich told L&I investigators he knew his workers were digging in rain-soaked, “type C” loam-sandy unstable soil. "The nature of the work is dangerous,” Numrich told investigators. “There is nothing safe about working with type C soil." Numrich said he had left the worksite to get lunch when the trench collapsed.
Trenching safety requirements
Excavation and trenching are known to be very hazardous work, so there are numerous safety requirements that must be followed, including ensuring trenches four feet deep or more have protective systems in place to prevent the sides from caving in.
Among other requirements, there must be ladders, ramps or other means for workers to safely enter or exit a trench. Daily inspections of trenches are required to monitor soil conditions. Numrich violated these and other workplace safety requirements.
Read press release on Washington State Department of Labor and Industries