April 24–LANSING, Mi. — James Fejedelem, 60, died while on the job at a tow-truck company.
The workplace fatality occurred when a bus he was trying to tow rolled on him.
That was six months ago.
Joshua Fejedelem, James’ son, says he still doesn’t know specific details of how his dad died. The last contact he and his younger brother had with their father’s longtime employer was at his funeral.
“We’re his kids. We would actually like to look at somebody, and tell us, ‘Hey, this is what happened. This is why your dad died.’ We haven’t even got that. He died in October. To me, that is kind of ridiculous,” Joshua Fejedelem said.
Copies of the full investigative reports into workplace deaths are not readily available for family members of those killed. Families tell MLive/The Grand Rapids Press that it can be difficult to find out what happened in these tragic incidents.
Despite calls, Fejedelem said he hasn’t received a report from Michigan workplace safety investigators or Michigan Workers’ Compensation, where he filed a claim. Online Occupational Safety and Health Administration records show the investigation is in the settlement phase. Another family whose loved one died on the job said it’s resorted to filing a Freedom of Information Act request in hopes of getting answers to certain questions.
The families’ unanswered questions are part of a lack of transparency from the governmental agency charged with investigating workplace deaths and overseeing safety checks on employers. Workplace death information is becoming more difficult to access for families, journalists, attorneys and the general public.
Bart Pickelman, MIOSHA director, said families of workers who die on the job should receive the same report sent to employers, summing up what, if any, penalties were issued and why. A letter informing them of that right is sent to the person listed as the worker’s next of kin, which is provided by the employer to MIOSHA during the investigation.
If family members want more details, they have to file a Freedom of Information Act request asking for the case file just like a reporter or attorney might. The state charges a per-page fee and the cost of the state employee’s time in preparing the file.
Basic information about the investigations, including those safety rules violated, isn’t available on the OSHA database for the public to look up. Pickelman said the information is uploaded to the database by his Michigan staff, but the national agency decides what can be viewed by the public.
Pickelman insisted Michigan is ahead of most states when it comes to transparency. MIOSHA immediately puts information about workplace deaths on its website and alerts the media with emails.
The emails lack the victims’ and the employers’ names. Sometimes information like age and a description of what happened aren’t accurate, according to a review of MIOSHA documents by MLive. The information is usually supplied by the employer, which can range from the foreman on the job to a human resource employee in another state, Pickelman said.
Sometimes, MIOSHA first learns of a workplace death not from the employer but a family, police or even a news report. The agency is required to begin an investigation within 24 hours of notification. Businesses are required to report workplace deaths within eight hours.
“We make sure it is spelled out on emails and the website that what we are reporting is what we heard from the employer,” Pickelman said. “It’s the initial reports. It’s not the result of the investigations.”
Joshua Fejedelem said his dad began working for George’s Towing Company in the Flint area 37 years ago, a year before Joshua Fejedelem was born.
James Fejedelem, who celebrated his 60th birthday a week before he died Oct. 23, was thinking about taking an early retirement at the end of the year, his oldest son said.
The former Marine, who drove a semi-style tow truck, spent most of his career working or on call. He traded his vacation time for bonus checks. That schedule meant James Fejedelem wasn’t available to spend much time with his only grandson, Joshua Fejedelem’s 4-year-old son.
Workers’ compensation paid out little for James Fejedelem, who was divorced with two grown sons. It was only required to contribute $6,000 toward funeral costs.
Fejedelem’s sons paid for some of the other funeral expenses. He received a free military burial at Great Lakes National Cemetery in Holly.
For Joshua Fejedelem, the response by his longtime employer and investigators to his dad’s death seems callous and dismissive.
“His employer gets off of everything because he wasn’t injured on the job, he was killed. So that falls back on workers comp,” said Joshua Fejedelem, who lives in Macomb County’s Chesterfield Township. “I haven’t gotten any calls from his employer asking, how anybody is doing? Can we help out? Nothing. It’s just like how can we sweep this underneath the rug.”
Dan McNamara, owner of George’s Towing Company, said he reached out to Fejedelem’s sons at his funeral, but didn’t hear back. He said the company offered to pay for whatever insurance or workers’ compensation didn’t pick up.
The loss of the longtime employee has been devastating professionally and personally, McNamara said.
“There were only two guys, myself and him,” McNamara said. “You didn’t have to mention anything to him because he was always thinking of something. He was heck of a man. You don’t find them like that anymore.”
A MIOSHA investigation concluded that Fejedelem failed to engage the parking brake on the bus he was setting up to tow. He also didn’t use two rubber wheel chocks as a secondary support system to putting wood blocks under each tire.
The state agency issued one serious violation, with a $7,000 penalty, against the company for failing to a have written procedures for towing vehicles, according to a violation worksheet obtained by MLive through the Freedom of Information Act.
Transparency is becoming a battleground issue at OSHA. Under President Trump, the Department of Labor agency has rolled back some of the changes made under the Obama Administration.
OSHA is publishing fewer reports about workplace deaths. The agency also removed last year a scrolling list of names of people killed on the job.
The changes were described by the Department of Labor as more fair to employers and providing a measure of respect for the victims’ families and their privacy.
The previous listings included fatal incidents that were outside federal OSHA jurisdiction, not work-related, or the employer was not cited for a violation related to the incident, according to the department.
“We are continuing to review all of the data to ensure it is accurate and useful to our stakeholders. Previous entries remain available in the original format on OSHA’s data and statistics page,” a department spokesperson said in an email.
People should know the extent of the workplace death and injuries in this country, said Jordan Barab, former deputy assistant secretary of OSHA under President Obama who now writes about workplace safety issues in a blog, Confined Space.
With about 2,000 inspectors and 8 million workplaces, OSHA only has enough staff to inspect a tiny portion of job sites. Transparency puts pressure on companies and industries to improve workplaces’ safety conditions, he said.
“We were accused of shaming employers,” Barab said. “We’ve had a lot of attorneys tell us that their clients tell them that they don’t really care much about the small OSHA fines. What they really don’t want is to end up in an OSHA press release.”
Six months after Jason Perez died, his family still doesn’t know the details of his workplace death.
“From the beginning, we were in constant contact and (MIOSHA) told us once the citations were issued, they would contact us,” Christina Perez said of her brother, who was the second youngest of four siblings.
Perez, 35, died Oct. 8, 2017, from burns from an explosion that happened while he was purging a gas line for an air handling unit. MIOSHA cited the union pipefitter’s employer, Pontiac-based FM Sylvan, with two serious violations and a total fine of $14,000. The financial penalty was reduced to $7,000, according to an online OSHA report.
A MIOSHA investigation concluded there wasn’t proper ventilation in the mechanical rooms where the employees were working with gas lines, according to a violation worksheet obtained by MLive through the Freedom of Information Act.
MIOSHA still hasn’t provided this information to his parents and siblings. The family is now requesting a full report of the investigation under the Freedom of Information Act.
They’ll have to pay for the report that will cost around $50 to compensate the state for employee costs of preparing the document to be shared publicly. The version they will receive will likely have redacted portions, including the names of witnesses.
His family obtained a report from the fire marshal, which also investigated what caused the explosion that killed Jason Perez. The report cost about $35.
Perez grew up in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. He left the West Coast for the Midwest to find work.
“He fell in love with Detroit. He planned to stay out in Michigan,” Christina Perez said of her brother.
MLive’s FOIA request for citation worksheets from each of the 38 workplace deaths in 2017 took nearly two months.
Not a ‘freak accident’
If Bianca Davis hadn’t been able to see the MIOSHA investigator’s report, she wouldn’t have realized her father’s death was, in her opinion, preventable.
“For a long time, I thought it was freak accident,” said Bianca Davis, who is working with an attorney to sue Chieftain Contract Services.
Glenn Davis, 61, died Feb. 1, 2017 after he was struck by material from an exploding tire.
Davis was assisting truck mechanics in the repair of a leaking tire when the sidewall of the tire ruptured. Standing three feet from the tire, Davis was thrown about six feet, causing him to hit his head on the floor. The Davison man died from a head injury.
MIOSHA issued one serious violation with a $6,300 penalty against Chieftain Contract Services.
A MIOSHA investigation found that Davis did not have the training to be working in automotive/tire service operations. As a result, Chieftan no longer allows drivers to enter the service area, according to a violation worksheet obtained by MLive through the Freedom of Information Act.
“I realized it was preventable and they chose not to prevent it,” Bianca Davis said.
Chieftain, and its parent company of E.L. Hollingsworth and Co., a Flint-based freight hauler dating back to 1924, didn’t have any previous MIOSHA violations, according to the OSHA database.
Eric Ruth, the company’s general counsel, declined to comment, citing litigation.
Investigation lacked depth
MIOSHA’s investigation into the cause of Lee Sommers’ death left many unanswered questions, according to Lansing-based attorney Neal Wilensky.
He said a lawsuit is the family’s best hope to get those questions answered.
Lee Sommers, 58, died March 7, 2017, when he was struck by a piece of a door. The maintenance worker at Hi-Tech Steel Treating Inc. in Saginaw was working with employees on a furnace used to heat automotive parts. They had removed the vacuum line used to purge the furnace and connected air to the door to check for leaks when a section of the door broke away and struck Sommers.
MIOSHA issued one serious violation with a $3,500 penalty to Hi-Tech Steel Treating, according to an online report.
“Part of the problem in this matter is the MIOSHA investigation wasn’t in-depth,” Wilensky said.
He is counting on the discovery process that is part of a court case to draw out information the company has declined to provide so far.
MIOSHA investigations aren’t intended to determine root cause, Pickelman said.
“We don’t get into all the extenuating circumstances and really dive deep into what caused the accident,” Pickelman said. “We focus on what were the circumstances around the fatality and how that intersects with compliance of our rules. It’s a fine line to try to determine root cause.”
Workplace lawsuits are rare in Michigan because the Workers Compensation Disability Act prevents negligence claims against employers and coworkers across the country, in exchange for providing benefits to workers or their families in the case of injury or death.
However, in other states, employers can be sued for “recklessness” causing death or injury. In Michigan, Wilensky said, it must be proven there was intention to harm a worker.
“Michigan law allows suits in cases where there is intentional tort, but it’s a high burden,” Wilensky said.
In Sommers’ case, the attorney alleges the furnace Sommers was working on had previous issues. The cap that blew, causing his death, had been replaced nine months earlier, according to Wilensky.
Hi-Tech Steel Treating didn’t return a call from MLive seeking comment.
Sommers’ daughter, Shawn Sommers, made the rounds of law offices before he found an attorney willing to take the case.
Wilensky said the response to workplace deaths and injuries will improve if laws change.
“If their loved one gets hurt in the workplace, we have workers comp. But in workplace deaths if there are no children or surviving dependent spouse, all the company’s insurance has to do is pay the funeral bills. It’s the law that is bad. Nobody brings that harsh light on the law and the big businesses that write the law,” Wilensky said.
(c)2018 The Grand Rapids Press, Mich.
Visit The Grand Rapids Press, Mich. at www.mlive.com/grpress
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.