Metro-East News

‘This could have been prevented,’ former employees say after man crushed by dumpster

Former employees of Wastequip, where a man was killed Friday, have raised questions on whether the lift that he was working under had been properly inspected or maintained — but Wastequip officials said they could not comment on the matter pending an investigation.

Early indications are Kenneth J. Woltering was painting a dumpster that was suspended in the air when an arm of the lift broke and one of the largest trash containers fell, crushing and killing him.

He was found about noon on Friday at Wastequip in East St. Louis. An investigation into his death by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration should be complete in six months, officials said.

A company spokeswoman said on Monday that the facility was shut down and will remain so during the OSHA investigation. She confirmed the employees will be paid during the shutdown.

Wastequip makes and paints trash containers, from the small dumpsters commonly found at apartment buildings to the large containers that park adjacent to grocery stores. Woltering worked in the paint booth on the large container line, where a lift system allowed him to prime and paint the underside of the largest containers, according to former employees.

Robert Downs said other equipment in the facility was inspected regularly, including the sky cranes attached to the ceiling and used to move large pieces inside the building. He had been part of the safety team for a while, until a new supervisor took over. Downs quit working for Wastequip a few months ago after about 15 years at the company.

He said that while no one had been injured up until Friday, he didn’t think inspections and maintenance had been properly done.

Wastequip did not immediately respond to specific questions about the lift and its maintenance, but had earlier issued a statement that they were “working closely with our internal employee health and safety team as well as representatives from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to fully investigate the matter.”

“Nothing is more important to our company than our employees, so this is an especially difficult time for all of us. Needless to say, our hearts and prayers go out to the family, and we grieve along with them,” said Amy Wright, senior vice president of marketing and business analytics for Wastequip.

A St. Clair County coroner investigator, as well as East St. Louis police and fire crews, responded to Wastequip on Friday morning after a man working on a dumpster died. Mary Cooley

RJ Landert, who says he was a welder for two and a half years on the same line Woltering worked, also raised questions about inspections.

Landert said some of the equipment used at Wastequip was not capable of moving the heavy container pieces.

“I had to modify one of the rolling systems before I left because of an issue ... the rollers don’t meet weight capacity,” he said.

Former employees said the largest containers are 45 feet long and made of quarter-inch steel.

Welders would work on the sides, floors and doors of the containers on the line, and the final container would be pushed on rollers into the paint booth with a forklift. There, Woltering would check the welds and use the lift to raise the container as needed, the former employees said.

But containers didn’t always roll neatly into the container, they added.

Downs said company officials should have known the rollers and concrete in that booth were always getting beat up constantly.

“This could have been prevented, 100 percent,” Downs said.

The “cans,” as employees called the containers, would hit the jacks as they went in and out of the paint booth, Downs said.

“After years and years of abuse of pushing cans in … the concrete has deteriorated from trying to anchor them back down. The plant manager is well aware of how tough that is,” Downs said.

No one at Wastequip, nor the former employees, could say exactly what kind of lift was being used in the paint booth. Investigators on Friday described it as like those used in automotive shops.

Landert said the paint booth lifts were “just a standard car lift” and the cans Woltering was working on Friday would have been about 25 feet long, about 9.5 feet tall and about 9 feet wide.

“Which in my opinion, for the lift that’s in there, that’s too much weight for it,” Landert said.

An OSHA representative said the administration does not have specific inspection requirements, but uses the industry consensus standards from the Automotive Lift Institute.

The president of the Automotive Lift Institute said Tuesday morning that there are seven types of automotive lifts, from those used at small automotive shops to those that can lift firetrucks. He said there are also lifts made for the “material handling business” which should be maintained and inspected in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations.

“The first thing I’d want to know is are these actually automotive lifts, or are they a product intended to be used as they were used,” said R.W. “Bob” O’Gorman, president and CEO of the Automotive Lift Institute.

O’Gorman said, generally speaking, automotive lifts should be inspected at least once a year, but specified that without knowing the type of lift or the manufacturer’s intentions, it was hard to say.

Woltering’s death is the only fatality listed on the OSHA website for Wastequip, which has 13 locations nationwide that make the waste containers like the facility in East St. Louis does. Wastequip also has other facilities that make compactors or parts.

The company has 12 cases opened by OSHA since 2009, including one in Tennessee where a worker’s finger was cut off in a similar facility to the one in East St. Louis when his finger was caught between a worktable and the sheet metal piece that he was bending.

The Tennessee investigation found eight violations.

One of the four “serious” violations there was for “general requirements for all machines,” which the company settled for $2,350. The Tennessee plant was also cited for repeated violations of spray finishing safety measures.

Among Landert’s questions is how long his friend was under the container before he was found — he thinks an alarm should have sounded, or at least the vibration of the container hitting the floor should have alerted others.

When the painters are working by themselves, he said, they carried a “dead man’s switch” that shared an alarm if the man stopped moving for three minutes. It was intended to send aid if the painter were overcome by fumes or heat in the paint booth.

Even without the switch, Landert said, the weight of the container hitting the floor from the lift should have sent a rumble through the building.

Downs said he repeatedly told supervisors of maintenance issues in other parts of the facility. He was not the supervisor over the paint booth.

“This could have been prevented,” Downs said, noting that he told supervisors for 15 years that “things need fixed, things need changed.”

“Kenny was a good guy and it shouldn’t have happened to him,” Downs said.

Woltering had worked for Wastequip for more than 30 years and was from Beaver Prairie.

Services for Woltering are scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday at St. Felicitas Catholic Church in Beaver Prairie.

Mary Cooley: 618-239-2535; @MaryCooleyBND