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Judge Affirms Willful Citation in Countryside Tree Service Fatality Case

Tony Watson, owner of Countryside Tree Service, willfully allowed an inexperienced worker to operate a wood chipper.

On May 4, 2016 at 6:30 a.m. Justus Booze left his home. He never returned.

The 23-year-old started his first day for Countryside Tree Service at a job site in Guilderland, N.Y. Booze was hired for the job after a friend discussed it with him, according to media reports.

He had not been trained to safely use the company's wood chipper. However, he was directed to feed materials into the machine. Booze became entangled in the chipper's moving parts and was fatally injured. OSHA immediately opened an investigation into the incident.

"A young man's life ended tragically and needlessly," said Robert Garvey, OSHA's Albany, N.Y. area director said in a Nov. 4, 2016 statement. "Countryside Tree Service bears responsibility to ensure that all phases of tree trimming, tree felling and tree removal work is performed safely. Putting employees to work with potentially dangerous machines with no safety training is unacceptable. Tree service companies must train workers - climbers, trimmers and ground crew - properly. These workers must also be instructed in safe work practices and use of equipment including chain saws, cutters and especially hand-fed wood chippers that cut and grind branches and logs into pulp."

The agency cited Tony Watson, Countryside Tree Service owner, for five willful and serious citations. The agency discovered the employer did not ensure workers used safe operating procedures when feeding materials into the chipper, exposing them to deadly hazards.

Investigators found Watson willfully exposed his workers to laceration and amputation hazards while operating chain saws during tree removal at three separate locations. 

There was no evidence that workers were trained to use personal protective equipment. Employees were observed not wearing leg protection while performing tree removal. Watson willfully exposed workers to eye hazards including wood dust, flying wood pieces, and being struck by branches during tree trimming and feeding wood into a chipper. In addition, employees were not required to wear protective helmets in areas where the potential exists for head injuries from falling objects.

Watson contested the initial allegations to the independent Occupational Health and Safety Review Commission in October 2017. 

In a filing dated Sept. 16, 2019, a Administrative Law Judge William S. Coleman affirmed the initial citations and ordered Watson to pay $66,986 in penalties.

According to the decision, Watson told OSHA officials that he knew the victim was "green" and "never had any experience in doing tree work." He continually acknowledged Booze's inexperience, stating that it has been his "concern all day long" and that the victim was hired to "basically rake" and to be "a helper and cleaner."

On the day of the incident, Watson along with four additional employees were spread across three different family residences. He did not delegate any supervisory responsibilities to his two experienced workers, relying on assumption that "both implicitly understood that Watson relied on them to maintain proper work procedures with respect to the two inexperienced workers."

Following Booze's death, Watson made several false statements to police. According to the decision, he told the police that “all day long [Booze] was cleaning up branches and raking up debris” and “was not supposed to be putting things in the chipper,” when he had in fact observed the victim feeding the machine.

"When in truth the decedent had fed the chipper with Watson’s express permission, evinces a consciousness of wrongdoing with regard to having given an inadequately trained employee with no prior experience the permission to operate lethal equipment," Coleman wrote in his decision. "Corroborative of this conclusion is Watson’s testimony that allowing new workers to “run” the chipper was not his “normal procedure on a new guy working with us.”

Booze's friends commented on a GoFundMe that was created to assist his fiance, Kristin Schutta, with funeral and living expenses, "A young man so full of laughter and joy had suddenly passed away. Justus was a ray of sunshine and always did whatever he could to help anyone who needed it. His passing has left us all deeply shocked and saddened." 

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