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Poway : State Probing Safety in 2 Cave-In Deaths

Times Staff Writer

State investigators Monday said safety standards requiring that deep-water wells be reinforced with protective casing before workers are sent into them may have been violated in the weekend collapse of an irrigation well near Poway.

Two men were killed Saturday when the walls of the well they were cleaning at the Highland Valley Ranch caved in, burying them under 18 feet of granite blocks and dirt. By late Monday, the bodies of the men, whose names have not been released by their employer, the Curtis Drilling Co., still had not been recovered.

Donald Nielsen, a safety engineer with the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (CAL-OSHA) who is investigating the cave-in, declined to comment on any specifics of the case. Nielsen would only say that he has “several questions” about the accident and is evaluating the case to determine whether applicable safety codes were followed. He would not identify those codes.

But Loy Cook, area manager of CAL-OSHA’s consultation division in San Diego, said that two sections of the state Construction Safety Orders require employers to “provide a metal shield or some other type of casing that will withstand the pressure of dirt if the walls of a well cave in.

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“All wells or shafts over five feet deep into which employees are permitted to enter must be retained with some type of casing that runs the full depth of the shaft and will protect the employee from the collapsing walls,” said Cook, noting that he was not familiar with details of the cave-in Saturday.

“Working in a well is an unforgiving business--one of the most hazardous things people do--and those who do it must be protected,” Cook said. “I’m sure this is a frequent violation, and I’m also just as sure that the frequency of injury is very low. But when an accident happens, it’s a serious one.”

Cook said that communicating the importance of shoring up wells has been a “never-ending problem” for OSHA, one over which the agency has “agonized for years and years.”

“We realize that an employer will go out there, and he won’t shore up a trench or a well because it looks good and the job is a short one,” Cook said. “He does it 100 times with impunity and figures it’s a good risk and a great way to save some expenses. Then--boom.”

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If investigators determine that a violation of state safety codes occurred, a citation would be issued to the employer, Cook said. In addition, the Bureau of Investigations likely would evaluate the case to determine whether there was willful negligence and whether a criminal indictment is in order, he said.

According to initial reports released by county sheriff’s deputies, the victims had finished cleaning the well of silt, climbed out and removed a protective metal sleeve from the shaft. The two then had re-entered the well to retrieve some tools, when the walls collapsed, a sheriff’s spokesman said.

Nielsen said he had heard that report but could not confirm it. Telephone calls by The Times to the Curtis Drilling Co. in Vista were not returned.

Meanwhile, efforts to recover the bodies were set back when the walls caved in a second time late Sunday. The victims are believed to be undocumented workers from Mexico in their mid-20s.

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