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Hillsborough County construction worker swallowed by sinkhole

In higher-risk occupations like construction and industrial work, every attempt is made to keep workers as safe as possible. However, despite all precautions, sometimes a worker can get injured on the job. While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and company safety procedures help to assure a safe workplace, Mother Nature is not always so cooperative. Florida has many unique environmental risks such as flooding, hurricanes, extreme heat and sinkholes. It can be hard to always ensure that workers are safe from these risks, even when appropriate precautions are taken.

In Ruskin last week, a construction worker was swallowed by a sinkhole while working on a new expansion of a water treatment plant operated by Hillsborough County. The $80 million project was implemented to improve the water treatment capacity in the area surrounding Ruskin, Sun City Center and other towns in southern Hillsborough County. The project faced scrutiny that day after the ground near several workers shifted, swallowing the 54-year-old worker into the earth. Another man clung to his hand, which remained exposed until the earth swallowed it up as well.

An eight-hour rescue effort ensued, in which rescuers listened for underground sounds with special equipment in the midst of downpours. A portion of Interstate 75 was closed off to prevent the noise and movement from traffic from interfering with rescue or location efforts. The digging began after about five hours of these efforts. Vacuum trucks sucked water and waterlogged soil as they worked, in a process that took over three hours. The man appeared to have died of suffocation, but a pending autopsy will verify this.

The local deputy chief of operations for the county fire department reported that he expected the sheriff's office and OSHA to cooperate in an investigation of this incident. He believes that the sinkhole was caused by a combination of heavy rains and recent digging to install a pipe. Regardless of whether or not this fatal workplace accident was caused by safety violations or unavoidable natural risks, the surviving family members may be entitled to workers' compensation benefits. These payments will not replace their beloved family member, but they can help with funeral expenses and the loss of income. A personal injury attorney can help advocate for these benefits, and also help evaluate potential safety violations, in which case the family may litigate for a wrongful death or other appropriate settlement.

Source: Tampa Bay Times, "Body found of man who fell in ground at Ruskin water treatment plant" Will Hobson, Jan. 02, 2014

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