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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the May 7 death of a National Park Service employee who died while mowing at the Haw Creek Valley overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Asheville.
Dana Bruce, 63, was maneuvering a riding mower behind a trashcan on the valley side of the overlook when the mower slid off the mountainside, falling more than 100 feet and killing Bruce, according to Blue Ridge Parkway Chief Ranger Steve Stinnett.
Because Bruce was a federal employee, his death on the job has prompted a federal investigation by OSHA.
An OSHA compliance officer has visited the accident site, OSHA spokesman Michael Wald said. The investigation also may include the compliance officer conducting interviews and taking photographs of the site to help OSHA determine whether any of its safety and health standards were violated, Wald said.
OSHA has six months from the date of the accident, which in this case is May 7, to determine whether any violations occurred, Wald said.
As a federal agency, the National Park Service must comply with OSHA standards, although OSHA may not impose any monetary penalties against other federal agencies for failing to comply with its standards. The Blue Ridge Parkway is part of the National Park Service.
If violations are found, Wald said OSHA would issue a Notice of Unsafe and Unhealthful Working Conditions, which would include a time frame for the abatement of any unsafe or unhealthful conditions, according to information on OSHA’s website. OSHA then would conduct a follow-up inspection to ensure problems cited have been corrected.
If the National Park Service received a Notice of Unsafe and Unhealthful Working Conditions and then failed to abate any conditions specified in such a notice, OSHA’s assistant secretary would contact the head of the National Park Service in Washington, D.C., to ensure the changes were made, Wald said.
The investigation into Bruce’s death on the Blue Ridge Parkway could last from a few days to a few months, Wald said.
When contacted about this investigation, Bruce’s widow declined to comment.
National Park Service reviewing mowing equipment, practices
The accident prompted a temporary nationwide suspension of mowing operations at all national parks and a massive training overhaul by the National Park Service.
“We are using the ‘stand down’ as a way to improve our work processes and reduce the risk of such accidents,” NPS spokesman Bill Reynolds said. “We know that there are inherent risks in our daily work, but the work is never more important than the people who are performing it.”
Reynolds said the National Park Service is requiring all parks to complete five tasks before they can resume mowing:
- Complete a risk assessment to identify high-hazard areas for mowing,
- Review and update mowing operations for string trimmers, rider mowers and tractors with mowing decks,
- Conduct a complete mowing equipment condition checklist,
- Train personnel for conducting mowing operations near roadways and for flagging and signage operations, and
- Train personnel on all specific mowing equipment about park, third-party and manufacturer specifications.
Blue Ridge Parkway Chief of Maintenance and Engineering Michael Molling said there will be policy changes that may involve using string trimmers and push mowers rather than riding mowers in certain areas.
“We’re going to put some changes in our mowing policy that will dictate that we’re not going to allow mechanized machinery close to an edge,” he said.
Molling confirmed that Bruce was riding a Gravely Promaster 260Z zero-turn riding mower when he died. The Gravely Promaster 250Z and 260Z manual states that these riding mowers are not safe for operation near drop-offs or embankments.
The Blue Ridge Parkway “red tagged” all 51 of the riding mowers units used for the entire 469-mile length of the parkway, which runs through North Carolina and Virginia, according to Marianne M. Mills, spokeswoman with the National Park Service. When a piece of equipment is “red tagged,” it means the agency has taken it out of service and won’t use it until it is repaired or a determination is made to permanently discontinue use, Mills wrote in an e-mailed response to some Carolina Public Press questions.
The 51 riding mowers taken out of service on the Blue Ridge Parkway include 24 zero-turn mowers with roll-over protection structures, 26 non-zero-turn mowers — three of which have roll-over protection structures and 23 of which do not — and one slope mower with roll-over protection structures, Mills wrote.
Parkway staff are in the process of completing site surveys to determine where the use of riding mowers is safe and the best tool for the job, Mills wrote in an e-mail to Carolina Public Press, adding that these surveys also will help management decide where to restrict mowing operations to walk-behind equipment, such as push mowers.
“In some areas, it may be preferable to cease mowing altogether,” Mills wrote Carolina Public Press. “A thorough review of the Parkway’s existing mowing policy is underway with revisions to be made. The mowing policy will formalize mowing restrictions in relationship to the angle of terrain and choice of equipment for employee and visitor safety, as well as resource protection. The use of riding mowers will be re-instituted on a case-by-case basis only after approval by Parkway Superintendent Phil Francis. It is proposed is to permanently retire all riding mowers at the Parkway that do not have (roll-over protection structures).”