August 7, 2020

Article: An Employee's Tragic Death Uncovers a Company's Unsafe Practices

Article: An Employee's Tragic Death Uncovers a Company's Unsafe Practices

Recently, I had the good fortune to work on a story that I found incredibly moving, discussing the effects of a man’s electrocution on his family, and the subsequent investigation into the man’s employer.  One challenge of this story was dealing with a subject where many of the participants in the story don’t want to take part in interviews (due to fear of liability).  It changed my focus from doing the give-and-take of a “he said/she said” story to the challenge of reviewing government reports and evidence and drawing from those things a meaningful story.  

On the northern edge of the village of Maxwell, where 3rd Street becomes old Highway 85, there is a transformer and a string of high power lines.  Little else exists out there.  In a March 19, 2020 report by the New Mexico Occupational Health and Safety Bureau, field investigator Jason Martinez summed it up as a vacant lot surrounded by other vacant lots and an abandoned building.  This - a vacant lot surrounded by other vacant lots and an abandoned building - was where a high-powered electrical line slipped and fell during maintenance, killing lineman Jorge Najera on September 26, 2019.

Najera was in Maxwell with a crew of THECO employees erecting a new pole and power line as part of maintenance for the local electrical co-op.  Hadley Gilbert, a foreman with THECO at the time (Gilbert has since left the company to operate his own electrical company, 4G Electric), led this crew in setting up a 69-kilovolt power line.

As Gilbert led the crew in setting up a new transmission pole for the power lines, he used three trucks to secure the line, which was left active.  Najera himself operated an auger from a digger derrick, which he used to drill into the earth for the new transmission pole.  Midway through the job, for reasons that remain unclear, the bucket of Gilbert’s truck moved, and the high power line dropped, landing on top of Najera.  While Najera’s coworkers put out the fires caused by the falling power line and initiated CPR, Jorge Najera died that day.  New Mexico’s investigation after Najera’s death uncovered that THECO had been responsible for Najera’s electrocution due to a laundry list of unsafe practices.

Joshwa Jimenez was Jorge Najera’s nephew, as well as another lineman that worked for THECO.  Jimenez described a culture of safety being sidelined in favor of quick work.  “[Foreman Hadley Gilbert] wanted everything done in such a hurry and always said we didn’t have time for safety,” Jimenez reported.  This newspaper repeatedly approached Gilbert for comment but he declined to respond.  Jimenez explained that Gilbert would threaten employees with termination if they complained about safety when transmission poles were being erected.  Jimenez said he and other employees contacted THECO CEO Thomas Hagan regarding Gilbert’s unsafe practices before Najera’s electrocution, but were chastised for doing so.  The World Journal apprached Hagan for comment, but, like Gilbert, Thomas he declined to do so.

THECO’s employee manual required that employees not work with “hot” or active electrical lines.  On the date that Jorge Najera was killed, site foreman Hadley Gilbert did not direct the Springer Electric Co-Op to cut the power to the line they were fixing.  Instead, they worked with a line that had 69,000 volts pulsing through it.

THECO employees said the company did not provide them with necessary safety equipment.  In a statement provided to New Mexico’s Occupational Health and Safety Bureau (OHSB), THECO lineman Brandon Clark said that THECO required employees to provide their hardhats (work with power lines requires special, high price hardhats), safety harnesses, and leather gloves.  THECO’s requirement violates federal regulations that require employers to provide employees with full safety personal protective equipment (PPE), to include hardhats and safety harnesses.  Based on the federal OSHA requirements for linemen, if a lineman were to be required to purchase the special hardhats, safety harnesses, and gloves necessary to meet federal regulations, employees could have easily been forced to spend over $300.00, assuming they even purchased the proper gear under the regulations.

OHSB conducted an investigation of THECO after Najera’s death, releasing its conclusions on March 25, 2020.  In its investigation, OHSB found that THECO’s lack of safe practices went beyond just requiring employees to purchase their own safety equipment.  OHSB investigator Jason Martinez found that

  • the company did not provide employees with training or even keep records to ensure employees were properly trained;
  • THECO failed to use sufficient insulation to protect its employees from electrical shock;
  • THECO failed to provide appropriate personal protective equipment to its employees, and actually required employees to purchase their own equipment, a violation of New Mexico and Federal regulations;
  • THECO failed to have observers monitoring the installation of power lines; and,
  • by allowing far too much slack in the power lines, Gilbert had helped create the circumstance that caused the power line to strike Najera.

In total, for what ended up being eight separate offenses that led to the death of Najera, OHSB proposed fining THECO only $29,700.00.  OHSB has not yet responded to inquiries as to whether THECO has accepted the proposed fines or whether it has appealed the agency’s findings.

Sarai “SJ” Najera described her father as everything to her family.  “He got three kids through college,” Sarai explained while weeping, adding that her father worked enough hours to ensure that his wife, Elsa, never needed to work and to ensure he could help his family out in Chihuahua.  Jorge’s son, Mikey, expressed similar sentiments, adding that the whole family was hurt by their father’s death.  The family is considering litigation.  After the death of Jorge, SJ and Mikey reported that THECO offered Jorge’s widow, Elsa, just a few hundred dollars in compensation.

Today, the vacant lot where Jorge Najera lost his life is still vacant.  Hadley Gilbert, Najera’s foreman, operates his own electrical contracting company, 4G Electric, in Clovis, New Mexico.  Najera’s son, Mikey, and nephew, Joshwa, report that THECO has stopped giving them work after Jorge’s death.  Tom Hagan continues to operate THECO out of Corrales, New Mexico, and boasts on the THECO website of jobs valued at $11.7 million and over $20 million on average in annual revenue.  OHSB has yet to respond to inquiries as to whether THECO has paid the $29,700 fine it imposed against THECO.