State workplace safety regulators issued more than $166,000 in fines Wednesday against a prominent recycling and compost company that runs a Kern County site where two brothers died last fall from exposure to poisonous gas.
"These young workers' deaths were completely preventable," said Ellen Widess, chief of the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health, in a statement.
She noted that hydrogen sulfide is a common byproduct of composting but said Community Recycling & Resource Recovery, which is headquartered in the San Fernando Valley, failed to provide workers with proper training, failed to test for dangerous levels of gas and did not have effective rescue procedures.
Widess also said Armando Ramirez, a 16-year-old employee, and Eladio Ramirez, a 22-year-old contractor, were not given adequate protection when they were cleaning the underground storm drain system at the company's facility in Kern County on Oct. 12.
Armando was standing on a ladder in a drainpipe trying to clear a blockage when he said he didn't feel well and then slipped into the pipe, according to an inspection report. Eladio tried to rescue him, but was overcome himself. Armando was pronounced dead at the scene. His older brother was taken off life support two days later.
In a statement, Community Recycling officials said they could not comment on the citations because they had not yet seen them. The company added that the deaths were the first in the facility's 17 years of operation and that the firm had "aggressively investigated" the circumstances and reviewed its entire safety and training program to ensure that such accidents would not recur.
Cal/OSHA spokeswoman Erika Monterroza said the division's Bureau of Investigation, which examines serious workplace accidents and deaths for possible criminal negligence, is still looking into the matter and, if it is warranted, will turn evidence over to the Kern County district attorney for prosecution.
At 16, Armando may have been too young for the hazardous work he was doing, although he had fake work papers saying he was 30, officials said. Cal/OSHA made a referral to the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement for possible child labor law violations. That investigation is ongoing.