State may fine UC Berkeley for violations related to April custodian death

Michael Drummond/Senior Staff

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UC Berkeley could receive $26,250 in fines for possible worker-safety violations related to the death of custodian Damon Frick in April, according to a summary of proposed penalties released by the state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health.

Frick was operating a motorized lift to clean the upper windows of the north wall of International House’s auditorium when the lift tipped over. He fell about 20 feet and died after sustaining various injuries.

Although no citation has been issued to the campus, the summary alleges a lack of documentation for inspections and maintenance. It also alleges that ineffective training was provided and that parts of the lift were not assembled according to instructions.

“We do know that Mr. Frick was fully trained in the use of this lift, and the machine carried a warning label that stated, ‘Do not insert outrigger from this end. Improper use will result in serious injury (or) death,’ ” said Associate Vice Chancellor for Communications and Public Affairs Claire Holmes in an email. “We are cooperating fully with all authorities and will continue to work diligently on all areas of employee safety.”

The allegedly ineffective training and lift assembly issues were both classified as “serious” violations in the proposed penalties, meaning there is “substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result.”

According to Holmes, on the morning of Frick’s death, a supervisor assigned him to set up the lift and dust the windows after confirming that he was familiar with the machine. Frick placed one of the four outriggers meant to stabilize the machine in the wrong channel, she said.

But Todd Stenhouse, a representative of the union to which Frick belonged, said the task was outside Frick’s job description as a custodian. These tasks are supposed to be performed by building maintenance workers, Stenhouse said.

The union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299, asked the university for additional worker training after the incident, including a training on “How To Refuse Abnormal and Unsafe Work Conditions, Work Request and Duties,” according to a union complaint filed with the Division of Occupational Safety and Health.

The union also requested that a panel including union representatives review the allegedly dangerous and hazardous tasks performed by employees on campus, ensuring that there would be adequate training and safety precautions.

“From our vantage point, this is obviously the outcome of an extensive investigation meant to prevent this sort of tragic, tragic outcome from ever happening again,” Stenhouse said. “When training is not proper, when equipment is not proper, it puts everyone at risk.”

If a citation is issued, administrators will review the findings and consider their options, Holmes said.

“We are always exploring ways to further enhance our training, and will continue to take a close look at how we can strengthen our efforts,” she said in an email. “The safety of our employees is paramount.”

Daniel Tutt is the lead higher education reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @danielgtutt.