The Missoula County attorney is reviewing the death of an auto shop worker in a workplace fire last summer to determine if criminal charges are warranted.
“When you’ve got a death that occurs, and you certainly have relatives of the decedent who think that it’s appropriate to consider criminal charges, that certainly falls within our responsibility,” said County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg.
Bruce Hall, 44, died after he was severely burned in an August fire at Rick’s Auto Body in Missoula. He was pouring lacquer from a barrel into a smaller container when the fumes exploded.
A fire marshal’s report classified the fire’s cause as accidental and determined no foul play was involved. If something had indicated criminal activity, such as arson, then police would have conducted an investigation, fire marshal Gordy Hughes said.
The fire department and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration work within different sets of regulations, he explained. “There was nothing at the time that had indicated any criminal activity.”
In December, OSHA released the results of its investigation, charging the Missoula shop with nine safety violations and fining the shop’s owners $36,000.
But Bruce Hall’s sister, Laura Hall, is not satisfied and requested Van Valkenburg review the case. She believes owner/managers Rick Booth and Paul Flores were negligent because of their shop’s deficient safety measures.
When the fire marshal’s report was released before OSHA’s investigation, people took away the message that the fire was an unfortunate accident, Laura Hall said.
“It was gross negligence – nine serious OSHA violations,” she contends.
In a letter to Van Valkenburg, Hall requested that he consider filing criminal or negligent endangerment charges to make a point to the owners of Rick’s.
“It’s more about accountability,” she said.
If criminal charges are filed, more business owners might take notice and be more responsive to employee concerns and safety needs, Hall said.
“I want the ripple effect. … And I feel charges will get people’s attention,” she added.
Hall said she believes her brother voiced his safety concerns to at least one person at the shop. He had undergone OSHA safety training himself – for his business in metal restoration in Texas – before moving to Missoula about six years ago.
However, nothing was done to address the concerns, and Bruce Hall did not call OSHA’s hotline, instead considering purchasing a static dissipation mat to mitigate some of the danger himself, she said.
Rick Booth, who owns the shop, disagrees and said he has fully abated safety issues identified in the OSHA report and strictly follows a monthly payment plan on the fine.
“I was not aware of any problems back there,” Booth said, adding he never spoke with Bruce Hall about safety concerns.
“We’ve always had a culture of safety here. We’ve always tried to do the right thing,” Booth said.
In the area of the shop where Hall’s brother was burned, paints and other chemicals were not covered or properly stored, equipment wasn’t properly grounded and the ventilation system wasn’t properly working, the OSHA investigation showed.
However, chemicals and paints were properly stored in another area of the shop, which illustrates management knew proper safety procedures, Hall said.
“That just breaks my heart when I look at that,” Hall said, pointing to side-by-side pictures of the two areas.
Digging for information to piece together the fire has helped her deal with her brother’s death – and with her last images of him, with his skin so badly burned it was sloughing off his hands, she said. “I wanted to know the truth.”
She obtained photos, the full OSHA report, and several other reports and documents about her brother’s death with the help of advocate Ron Hayes, who founded Families In Grief Hold Together after his own son died working in a grain bin.
With Hayes’ help and knowledge of how to navigate bureaucracy, Hall has started a crusade to improve awareness and safety for others.
On Saturday, April 26, Hall has organized a Workers Memorial Day event at noon on the Missoula County Courthouse lawn to remember other workers who have been injured or killed on the job.
Each day, 13 people die at work, she said. “That’s too many.”
Her tender-hearted brother was generous to a fault and would have wanted to make sure that something similar did not happen to anyone else, Hall said.
“I don’t want another family to have to go through this. It’s horrible, she ”said.