A Deadly Lesson

The death of an inmate work-crew member last October has resulted in new statewide safety protocols and a $25,100 fine

Washington Department of Natural Resources Crew Supervisor Nick Jeffries, right, teaches basic firefighting to inmates. - YOUNG KWAK
Young Kwak
Washington Department of Natural Resources Crew Supervisor Nick Jeffries, right, teaches basic firefighting to inmates.

When 22-year-old Danny Bergeson set out into the woods of Stevens County on an inmate tree-trimming crew last fall, reports say he had been cautioned against the dangers of passing traffic, potential hunters and other nearby hazards.

But when a tree he was cutting down fell into overhead power lines on Oct. 15, Bergeson suffered a fatal shock, becoming the first Washington state inmate killed on a prison work crew.

Workplace safety investigators now say Bergeson was not properly supervised, trained or warned about the high-voltage power lines. His death has resulted in a recently issued $25,100 citation for multiple safety violations and a statewide re-evaluation of how inmate crews take on dangerous jobs.

Considered a helpful and minimal-risk inmate at the Airway Heights Corrections Center, Bergeson joined a Department of Natural Resources work crew in August of last year to stay busy and earn some extra money. The department manages about 30 inmate crews across the state for forest maintenance and wildfire fighting work, providing a DNR crew leader to oversee each team.

Elaine Fischer, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Labor & Industries, says investigators recently cited DNR for five separate safety violations leading up to Bergeson’s death. L&I investigators found incomplete training on chainsaws, improper advisories on safety hazards and insufficient supervision.

“[The DNR crew leader] did not identify hazards … where employees were assigned to fall trees near electrical hazards,” the newly released citation states. “This exposed the employees to potential electrocution from trees hitting or becoming entangled into 115 [kilovolt] power lines that were within falling distance of the trees being felled.”

Loren Torgerson, the DNR’s Northeast Regional Manager, says the department’s inmate work program was temporarily suspended statewide last fall while officials reviewed all safety protocols for potentially dangerous jobs.

“What we did was a stand-down of the program,” he says.

The department evaluated each specific job that could be assigned to an inmate work crew and rated them from low to medium to high risk, Torgerson says. Each job now comes with a risk assessment sheet that outlines potential hazards and rules for avoiding accidents.

Crews returned to work within a few weeks, but any high-risk jobs now require extra safety discussions before crews start their work. Torgerson says crew leaders must go through each potential job hazard before starting a new project.

DNR officials say inmate crew members have always undergone several days of training on equipment safety and environmental risks. While Bergeson had previously served on DNR work crews, L&I investigators report many crew members had not finished their proficiency tests and quizzes for chainsaw usage and tree trimming.

“By not providing the entire training prior to allowing employees to operate chainsaws and fell trees,” the L&I citation states, “the employees were exposed to hazards likely to result in serious injury or death from unsafe cutting techniques and improper chainsaw operation.”

When trimming trees, the new safety rules require crews to stay at least two tree lengths away from power lines based on the tallest tree in the area, Torgerson says. Crew leaders must identify any power lines and mark the boundaries with flags before work starts.

Torgerson notes the DNR crew leader on duty during Bergeson’s death was not disciplined as a result of the incident, but has since left the department “on his own accord.”

Officials with the Department of Corrections say they are aware of the new policies introduced for DNR work crews, but have not changed any prison policies as a result of the incident.

Bergeson, who was serving a 20-month sentence for leading a state trooper on a short vehicle pursuit in 2010, was scheduled for release this past January. His father Bob, of Mount Vernon, Wash., said in October that he had serious concerns about how the inmate crews were supervised and managed, arguing someone should have been looking out for his son.

Bob Bergeson could not be reached for comment on the resulting investigation and citation.

L&I spokeswoman Fischer says the DNR’s Northeast Region has one previous safety citation for a reckless driving incident in 2005, but no other inmate work crew-related violations in recent years.

Torgerson says DNR would pay the $25,100 fine out of its Corrections Camps program, which funds state trust land projects.

“The department is not going to appeal the citation,” he says. 

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About The Author

Jacob Jones

Staff writer Jacob Jones covers criminal justice, natural resources, military issues and organized labor for the Inlander.