'Heads are Going to Roll' Following Death of Sanitation Worker

Jerry Holton climbed into the back of his garbage truck Feb. 3 to clear debris from the blade that compacted trash. He never climbed out.

The hydraulic system on the truck engaged, crushing Holton, 51. Norfolk, Va., officials at the time said Holton violated city safety policies by climbing into the truck to clear the jam. An investigation by the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry, however, found that Holton was obeying a city policy when he tried to clear the debris and has issued 19 serious and one other-than-serious violation to the city (there are no penalties, as it is a government agency). The Virginian-Pilot newspaper obtained the list of citations under the Freedom of Information Act.

According to the newspaper, Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim acknowledged the city received the report from the Department of Labor and Industry, but said he had not read it. Fraim did say that the city does not dispute the citations. City council members said they had not seen the report, which was issued July 26. All of the citations required abatement by Aug. 28 at the latest.

"Some heads should roll on this," Councilman Tommy Smigiel told the newspaper.

The city of Norfolk was cited for: failing to train Holton on the operator's manual for the vehicle; for not identifying and fixing a malfunctioning interlock mechanism on the truck, which allowed the blades in the truck to engage when the door was open; failing to identify, evaluate and train employees about the hazards of permit-required confined spaces (employees were instructed by the city to enter the trucks to clear debris); failing to train employees about the hazards related to the trucks; numerous lockout/tagout violations; flammable trash left underneath oil and transmission fill nozzles; placing a powered industrial truck back in service that was not in safe operating order; electrical hazards; and hazards related to the storage of gas cylinders. Eight of the citations were related to the incident that caused Holton's death; the others were found during an inspection of the sanitation department facility and equipment.

City officials claim that sanitation truck drivers were told to turn off the engine before opening the access door and entering the trucks and that current city policy requires them to return the trucks to the service garage. Sanitation workers for the city reported that at the time of Holton's death, they were told to enter the trucks to remove debris if it was jamming the blades, a claim backed up by the state's investigation.

"That’s unbelievable," said Norfolk Councilman Andy Protogyrou, adding the safety issues found by the investigation appear "to be a systemic breakdown."

Holton's daughter, Jessica Holton Hendricks, said her father would not have entered the truck if not instructed to do so by his supervisors. "He was very conscious of safety issues," she said.

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