Skip to main content.

Workplace Safety: As economy recovers, workplace deaths rise

Member Story

Workplace Safety: As economy recovers, workplace deaths rise

Picture of David Danelski

An analysis of federal workplace accident data found that more people die while on job in California's Riverside and San Bernardino counties when economic times are good. State regulators say safety should now be foremost as more people re-enter the workforce — especially in fast-growing fields with high risk.

Mary Buffum, 65, of Fontana sits with her dog, Cash, next to her late husband Jack's chair on the patio where they loved to entertain family and friends. Jack Buffum, 59, was killed May 30, 2013, in a workplace accident in Rialto.
Mary Buffum, 65, of Fontana sits with her dog, Cash, next to her late husband Jack's chair on the patio where they loved to entertain family and friends. Jack Buffum, 59, was killed May 30, 2013, in a workplace accident in Rialto.Mary Buffum, 65, of Fontana sits with her dog, Cash, next to her late husband Jack's chair on the patio where they loved to entertain family and friends. Jack Buffum, 59, was killed May 30, 2013, in a workplace accident in Rialto.Mary Buffum, 65, of Fontana sits with her dog, Cash, next to her late husband Jack's chair on the patio where they loved to entertain family and friends. Jack Buffum, 59, was killed May 30, 2013, in a workplace accident in Rialto.
The Press-Enterprise
Saturday, October 25, 2014
At Jack Buffum's 2013 memorial, friends and relatives looked at photos and reminisced about Buffum, known as a dedicated family man. Whether attending a softball game with a granddaughter or a family pool party, he was happiest when he was around his family, says his widow, Mary Buffum.

Jack Buffum had been out of a job for more than two years when he found work in 2013 as a laborer for a Rialto concrete pipe manufacturer.

But the $12-an-hour job turned out to be an exhausting challenge for the 59-year-old Fontana resident.

Buffum’s wife, Mary, said her husband complained about the long hours outdoors with few breaks. He told her about witnessing unsafe practices, such as workers being allowed to ride on behemoth forklift trucks used to move massive pipes to a storage yard; accepted safety rules dictate that only the driver is allowed on the 80,000-pound machine when it’s in use.

“He said it was just bad out there,” said Mary Buffum in an interview her Fontana home. “He said someone was going to get killed.”

On May 30, 2013, about two weeks after Jack Buffum expressed his fears, his wife was at work in Jurupa Valley, where she was a clerk at Lowe’s home improvement store. She was called to the store manager’s office, where she was surprised to see her son and daughter-in-law. Her son broke the devastating news.

Her husband had fallen from a moving forklift truck. He had been crushed to death beneath its massive tires.

Buffum joined the list of Inland residents who leave home for a day’s work but never return.

An analysis by The Press-Enterprise of federal workplace accident data found that at least 164 people died in workplace accidents in San Bernardino and Riverside counties between 2003 and 2012, the most recent year data were available. That’s an average of more than 16 people per year, and the number is probably higher because some accidents go unreported.

Fatal accidents increase when times are good and more people are working. In the 10 years examined by The Press-Enterprise, 2006 was the deadliest year: 29 workers died in workplace accidents, according to state and federal statistics. It also was the year with the lowest unemployment rate. In contrast, eight workers died on the job in 2009, during the depths of the recession, the data show.

The workplace fatality rates in Riverside and San Bernardino counties in 2012 are lower than state averages, but the state as a whole has a greater proportion of people working in the riskier farming and manufacturing sector.

Worker advocates say no one should lose their life in pursuit of a paycheck. The vast majority of workplace deaths, they say, could be avoided by following well-established safety protocols.

In the Inland area, state workplace safety regulators say safety should now be foremost as people go back to work, especially in the growing construction, transportation and warehousing industries. In 2012, about a third of California’s 375 workplace deaths occurred in these sectors.

State figures show that warehousing is the fastest growing employment sector and that construction is rebounding. In the years 2003 to 2012, blue-collar workers accounted for most of the Inland deaths – in homebuilding, trucking, warehousing, electrical trades, tree trimming and other basic jobs necessary for our communities to function.

One worker died in 2005 when he fell from a hole in the unfinished roof of an office building then under construction on Chicago Avenue in Riverside. The two-story structure now houses The Press-Enterprise newsroom and business offices.


California’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration – Cal/OSHA – is a division of the state Department of Industrial Relations. It is responsible for enforcing state labor safety laws.

In the Inland Empire, the task of enforcing state safety rules for 1.6 million workers falls mainly on Ayman Shiblak, manager of the Cal/OSHA office in San Bernardino, and his 10 field inspectors.

He said in an interview that his focus now is on improving safety in the burgeoning warehousing sector, which the agency recently found to be a “high-hazard” industry because the accident rate is more than twice as high as the average for all private workplaces.

“We have seen an uptick in complaints (from warehouse workers), and we have issued more citations,” Shiblak said.

Many warehouse jobs are filled by temporary employment agencies, and workers often don’t get the training they the need to operate forklifts, among other tasks, he said.

Other typical warehouse violations including letting employees work without proper foot protection, allowing exits to be blocked, and not taking adequate precautions to keep workers from overheating.

“It can be over 100 degrees, and people are doing heavy lifting in the (truck) trailers,” he said.

Those workers need regular breaks and access to fresh water, he said.

Shiblak said he expects to hire an inspector to focus on the increasing number of construction sites, where workers face the hazard of falling and other dangers.

“When houses are being framed, some sites may be more focused on production than safety,” he said.

Shiblak said he has enough inspectors to respond to Inland accidents and complaints in a timely manner, but the level of Cal/OSHA staffing statewide has been controversial.


Worker advocates say most workplace deaths are preventable and that more can be done to protect employees, including more inspections. Most fatal accidents involve falls, electrocutions or vehicle encounters – forklifts, dump trucks, semis and earth movers, according to reports from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“Nearly all of them are things that are predictable,” said Garrett Brown, who worked for 18 years as a Cal/OSHA inspector and more than two years as assistant to the agency’s chief before retiring late last year.

“These are known hazards, and we have known methods of controls for them,” said Brown, who investigated hundreds of workplace accidents during his career at Cal/OSHA and is critical of what he sees as inadequate staffing at the agency.

For example, strenuous outdoor work should be confined to the cooler, early morning hours, and work sites that rely on trucks or other heavy equipment should have good traffic plans, Brown said in an interview.

Companies can save lives by making sure employees don’t get exhausted, and that cranes, forklifts and other equipment are used only in ways recommended by the manufacturers, he said. Developing safety procedures and training employees to follow them also is vital when working on roofs, handling heavy loads, or operating heavy machinery, Brown said.

Cal/OSHA offers on-site consultations and reaches out to employers in higher-hazard workplaces, and the division now is working with labor managers to identify violators in the roofing industry, agency officials say.

Citations that are issued often are reduced following appeals, according to OHSA records. One pending case involves the Rialto accident that killed Jack Buffum.

Such cases often take years to close.

Common violations found after Inland fatalities included failing to have adequate illness – and injury –preventions plans, inadequate employee training and failing to make sure dangerous loads were safely secured.

Some workers are more vulnerable than others.

Federal data show Hispanics accounted for 48.8 percent of California’s 385 workplace deaths in 2013; at that time Hispanics comprised 38.4 percent of the population.

Garrett Brown said immigrant workers account for a large portion of the state’s workforce. They are more likely to get hurt because they are willing to take dangerous jobs and often have little or no training, he said. Those who work by the day for cash are among the least likely to report safety violations, he added.


Samual Elias Arana Barrera was a 24-year-old from El Salvador when he found work as a day laborer helping to move materials from a Los Angeles County-based cabinet company in September 2010.

On the day Barrera was working, La Mirada Rockport had 35 slabs of granite and marble – “black galaxy classic” and “empredor light” – delivered from Anaheim to a warehouse in Fontana. There, the heavy slabs had to be loaded into a shipping container for a journey to the Philippines.

Barrera was instructed to build an A-frame out of 2-by-4-inch boards; the framework was placed inside the shipping trailer to support the slabs. He then assisted a forklift operator by guiding the heavy slabs onto the wooden support in the trailer. The frame was not strong enough to bear the weight, however, and it collapsed, fatally crushing Barrera under 26 slabs that together weighed more than 13,000 pounds.

The company initially faced $24,835 in penalties for labor code violations that included failing to train Barrera for the hazardous job, using a poorly engineered A-frame rack, and failing to secure the slabs to prevent them from falling.

But when the case was closed earlier this year – more than three years after the accident – the penalty had been reduced to $12,500. Cal/OHSA agreed with company arguments that the accident was partly a result of the worker’s independent actions of which the firm had no knowledge.

Court records showed that that a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Barrera’s mother was settled for $12,000.

La Mirada Rockport and an attorney handling the OHSA case did not return calls seeking comment.

Barrera was one of three Inland workers killed by falling granite since 2006. Shiblak, Inland region Cal/OSHA manager, said handling heavy granite slabs – in high demand for America’s kitchens – has been recognized nationally as a hazard.


Even experienced workers lose their lives at work when handling heavy objects.

Peter Lisa, a 58-year-old pipe fitter who lived in Apple Valley, had 30 years in his trade when he was killed in 2011 by an 8-foot-diameter irrigation pipe at the Ameron International Water Transmission Group facility in Rancho Cucamonga.

Cal/OSHA still seeks $25,125 in penalties from the company. Ameron was cited for failing to ensure that the pipe Lisa cut was safely secured and for not having injury-prevention plans for the workers who cut massive concrete-lined steel pipes.

State inspectors found that falling pipes routinely put other workers at risk. The inspectors took the additional step of referring the case to the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s office for possible criminal prosecution, according to the case file documents. A district attorney spokesman said the case is still under review.

Lisa’s friend, Mark Thomas, is the general manager of Boilermakers Local 92 in Colton.

Thomas said his friend wasn’t the kind of worker anyone expected to get hurt.

He was a careful veteran and an assistant shop steward who had served on an employee safety committee.

On Feb. 11, 2011, his task was to cut a 14-foot section of the concrete-lined steel pipe into three pieces. He then was to weld the pieces back together to make an elbow-like curve in the pipe by following exact specifications drawn up in blueprints.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power needed the elbow for a pipeline that would ferry storm runoff to a reservoir southeast of Griffith Park in Los Angeles.

After making the first cut successfully, he used a crane to rest the remaining 10 feet of pipe on special rollers so it would turn as he made the second cut with a blow torch, according to the OSHA report. Cables attached to a crane and the pipe were supposed to keep the pipe secure.

Lisa went inside the pipe to break up the concrete lining with a sledgehammer. But the pipe did not come apart.

While still inside the pipe, Lisa apparently used a hand control to put tension on the cable to separate the two halves, according to the OSHA report. The pipe came apart, but one half, weighing 4,600 pounds, bounced as it dangled on the cable. It then fell off of the roller.

Lisa was caught between the jagged edges of the two pieces as one half fell to the ground and the other stayed on the rollers. He died instantly.

“It was like a guillotine,” Thomas said. “We’ve never seen anything like it.”

Lisa’s life had been going well, and he was particularly happy with his marriage, Thomas said. After the accident, boilermakers around the country made donations. A check for about $10,000 was presented to his widow, Julie, at the memorial service.

Thomas said he believes the distance between the top of the crane and the pipe was too great and allowed the pipe piece to bounce off the roller. But the truth of what happened will never be known, Thomas said.

Lisa was working alone, and no one saw the accident. When Local 92 personnel arrived to investigate at the outdoor accident site a day later, it had been cleaned up. No crane, rollers or pipe remained, Thomas said. It was impossible for the union to analyze how the accident occurred.

Several months after Lisa’s death, Ameron was sold to a larger company, Houston-based National Oilwell Varco, and the Rancho Cucamonga yard was closed. The Texas company operates other facilities in California.

“One thing is for sure,” Thomas said. “With a job like that, he shouldn’t have been working alone.”

The company disputes the Cal/OSHA allegations.

“Ameron has taken significant efforts to ensure that employees are trained to rig loads safely,” said a 2011 letter to Cal/OSHA signed by Myles Culhane, an attorney for the company. “At Ameron, large diameter concrete and steel pipe is only separated by highly skilled tradesmen with years of training.”

The letter added that a written injury-prevention plan dealing with every possible work procedure for handling and cutting pipes would be too voluminous to ever be used by workers.

Culhane’s letter said there is “nothing inherently unsafe in following different procedures” for separating different sizes and shapes of pipe.

Attorneys representing Ameron in the OHSA case, Ira J. Klein and Peter H. Weiner of San Francisco, did not return repeated telephone calls seeking comment.


Exhaustion and unsafe practices – both high-risk factors mentioned by Garrett Brown – contributed to Buffum’s death.

Buffum had worked more than 20 years for a pipe manufacturer in Ontario last owned by Hanson Pipe and Precast. The yard closed in 2010, and he and the other workers found themselves searching for jobs.

After weathering 21/2 years of unemployment, Buffum took a job early last year at another pipe maker, KTI Inc., which does business under the name Rialto Concrete Production.

It was heavy, dirty work at the casting warehouse and outdoor yard in an industrial area of north Rialto. Buffum wanted to work two more years, until he turned 62 and could afford to retire with the help of Social Security benefits, Mary Buffum said.

His job in Rialto was to help make steel-reinforced concrete pipes that were 8 and 9 feet in diameter and move them to a sprawling outdoor storage yard, according to OSHA records and interviews.

The work involved swinging a sledgehammer to beat metal casting rings off freshly cast pipes. It often took two workers 50 whacks each to knock castings off a pipe as it hung upright from a lift, said Tommy Brit, Buffum’s longtime friend and co-worker. The two men also had worked together in Ontario.

Buffum would help strap each pipe section, still upright, to the mast of a super-sized forklift called a Hyster Challenger, capable of carrying 59,000 pounds. The driver sat in a cab 11 feet above the ground.

Buffum would a ride on the Hyster’s front section, below the cab, to help deliver pipe sections to the yard. Then he would undo the straps and help another worker tip the pipes off of the lift truck for storage.

Brit and eight other KTI employees told Cal/OSHA investigators that Buffum either sat on the vehicle’s fuel tank or hung onto a fixed ladder below the cab as the Hyster moved between the casting warehouse and outdoor storage areas to deliver or fetch pipes.

Buffum’s last words to one of his co-workers the morning of May 30, 2013, were that he was “completely tired and exhausted.” He was breathing heavily, according to the report.

He had started his workday at 4 a.m. and, in 21/2 hours, had hammered rings off of 30 massive pipes and helped move them. The previous day, he had worked 13 to 14 hours, and he had put in 12 hours the day before that, according the state report.

Brit last saw Buffum riding on the front the Hyster as it entered the casting warehouse. Buffum appeared to start to stand up, apparently to get off of the moving machine, Brit recalled. He did not see Buffum fall, but he looked up again as he was cleaning casting rings and saw his friend under the tires of the moving lift truck. Brit yelled and waved his arms to get the driver to stop.

Buffum was run over by two wheels and killed instantly, said a coroner’s report.

Brit said he was so traumatized by the accident that he filed a workers compensation claim for mental duress. He also quit. He is now unemployed.

“It really (messed) me up in my head,” Brit said.


Employees later told Cal/OSHA investigators that workers routinely rode lift trucks and that the managers were aware of the practice, even though the machines are not designed to carry passengers and the manufacturer of the vehicles warns against the practice.

Sometimes as many as three workers rode on a lift truck, the state report said.

Brit said managers expected laborers to ride on forklifts because it allowed them to get more work done each day.

In November, Cal/OSHA cited the company for nine labor code violations and now seeks penalties totaling $52,060. The most serious violations stemmed from employees being allowed to ride on the lift trucks.

The company also was cited for not having adequate training for employees to work in the heat and to use heavy equipment, including the Hyster lift trucks and bridge cranes. The driver of the truck that killed Buffum could not see clearly in front of him because the windshield was dirty, state investigators said.

The company also did not have required traffic controls for lift trucks moving about the warehouse and storage yard. Also missing were suitable injury-prevention plans, the citations alleged.

Cal/OSHA’s Shiblak described the working conditions at the Rialto pipe manufacturer as “an accident waiting to happen.”

It was common practice for exhausted workers to ride lift trucks, and no one put a stop to it, he said.

Workers took the dangerous rides because otherwise they had to repeatedly walk more than 100 yards between the storage yard and the structure where the pipes were cast, Shiblak said.

“If they provided an electric golf cart, or even a bicycle, it would have been better than this,” he said. “There was no need for this.”

KTI Inc. has filed papers to appeal the citations, and Cal/OSHA has until May 2016 to close the case, said a state Department of Industrial Relations spokesman.

Company officials declined to be interviewed.

Receptionists at KTI’s Rialto offices twice said by telephone that the company had no comment. Company officials also did not respond to written requests to discuss the accident and the citations. An attorney representing KTI in the case also did not return calls.


Mary Buffum now keeps a thick file on the Cal/OHSA case in a cabinet.

Her Fontana home still has many reminders of her late husband, a father of three and grandfather of five. A handcrafted wooden sign above a pool patio entrance says “Jacks Bar: Music, Love Laughter.”

Mary still cares for the shih tzu that her husband named “Cash,” after the late country music icon Johnny Cash. The dog sat and whimpered on Jack’s patio chair for weeks following the accident, she said.

Jack wasn’t much of a swimmer, she said, but the couple spent hours relaxing by the swimming pool on comfortable chairs separated by a small table.

“Jack liked to sit on the patio,” she said. “He liked to barbecue. He liked to be at home.”

She looked at the pool and added that, since the accident, she has had to learn how to maintain it.

“It’s wrong, what happened to him,” Mary Buffum said. “Jack shouldn’t have died out there. ...

“He just went to work, like he always did.”

Contact the writer: 951-368-9471 or