Eighteen years ago, a state electrician using a telescoping lift was knocked out of work with a hip injury when a co-worker pulled the wrong pin and the 800-pound lift fell on him.
The recommendation after that accident: “Review of lift operations of setup and breakdown.”
Last month, Hal Rue, another state electrician in the same division, tried to set up the same lift to work on some exterior lights on the State Archives building. As Rue raised the lift, a co-worker hammered out the same pin.
Rue, 62, of Willow Spring, didn’t survive the lift’s punishing fall. He died three months shy of retirement.
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Now, as state labor investigators try to learn all that went wrong, documents obtained by The News & Observer through a public records request raise questions about the training Rue and the co-worker received before they attempted to set up the UpRight UL40, a machine that can lift a person roughly 40 feet off the ground.
That co-worker, Brian Masciarelli, said in the statement that he had received no training on the use or setup of the lift. Rue, meanwhile, had received one hands-on training session four years ago, followed by two video-only sessions in 2011 and 2012, and had not used the machine in the past two years, state records show.
Chris Mears, a spokesman for the state Department of Administration, which oversees the division where Rue and Masciarelli worked, said worker error is the preliminary finding from the accident investigation. He said Rue had the proper training to do the job; Masciarelli’s lack of training was not the state’s fault because Rue was supervising him, Mears said.
“He was the man who had the training, and he was the operator of the equipment,” Mears said.
‘They need to be trained’
Bill Taylor, a workplace safety expert who works for the EI Group in Morrisville, said there are no specific federal standards on the operation of these particular lifts. But after reading Masciarelli’s description of the accident, he had concerns about the efforts the department made to train employees on the equipment.
“If it takes two people to set this equipment up, then both need to be trained to do whatever it is they are supposed to do,” Taylor said.
Mears said the lift is designed to be operated by one person, but two are assigned for safety purposes.
Taylor also found it troubling that the same kind of accident could happen a second time, even if it was 18 years later.
“Possibly, if that 18-year-old accident had been used as a case study, perhaps this accident never would have happened,” he said.
Mears said he did not become aware of the earlier accident until an N&O request for previous injuries involving the lift. He was unaware of any complaints or issues with the lift. Tony Jordan, the longtime director of the Facility Management division that employed Rue, declined to be interviewed.
Loving his job
Rue began working for the state in September 2010. He had been an electrical contractor, following in the footsteps of his father. But in the mid-2000s, his love for fast cars prompted him to start a classic-car restoration business.
He had produced some sleek machines as a hobby, such as a 1969 Chevelle SS with a 502-horsepower engine, but after five years, the business was barely covering its bills. He had to shut it down.
The state job paid about $39,000 a year and was a huge relief for Rue. He saw an opportunity to earn a state pension and health benefits for his retirement in a few years.
“He said, ‘Going to work for the state, I feel like I’ve just won the lottery,’ ” said Rue’s older brother, Johnny, who lives a few miles away. (Johnny Rue’s wife, Amy, is an administrative assistant at The N&O.)
Hal Rue began working with the lift a month after he was hired – seven months before he received training. Mears said that wasn’t a problem because Rue was paired with another employee who had been trained.
The department’s policy on training for the type of lift Rue used isn’t specified. But for a similar type of lift, known as a “scissor lift,” the policy is that all new hires get trained and others are trained on an “as-needed” basis.
From October 2010 to March 2013, Rue used the lift seven times on three buildings in the state government complex, records show.
He was called on to use it again on the morning of April 13, a mild, partly cloudy Monday.
Removing a pin
He and Masciarelli picked up the lift from storage and rolled it to the southeast corner of the building. They placed it underneath the first set of exterior lights, which were on an overhang.
It became apparent to Masciarelli that they weren’t quite sure what to do. Masciarelli, 27, had been on the job for nine months. He could not be reached for an interview, but his statement is plain-spoken about what happened.
“The both of us then started to look at the lift and figure out how to stand it up the correct way,” Masciarelli said in his statement. “I have never been trained on this specific lift, nor have I ever used, or seen it. From my knowledge Mr. Rue had used the lift and I had assumed he knew how to operate it.”
They decided that a pin needed to be removed to stand the lift upright. What they apparently didn’t realize is that pin kept a hydraulic brace in place to prop up the lift while it was in transport mode.
The proper procedure would have been to pull out a handle that extends from the lift’s rolling carriage and use it to raise the lift to a standing position. After that, the pin can be pulled from the brace, so the carriage can be raised and re-pinned to the lift.
“Since we both agreed and I really had no idea, I started to pound the pin out with a hammer and a punch set because of the heavy rust,” Masciarelli said. “Mr. Rue watched and said nothing further.”
He continued pounding until the pin was almost clear. Then, Rue raised the lift to a 45-degree angle “with ease,” Masciarelli said.
Masciarelli told Rue the pin remained in the hole. Rue told him the pin “probably must be removed” to raise the lift to standing position.
“Again myself not being sure and trusting him I asked if he had the lift and he exclaimed yes,” Masciarelli said. “I then took the hammer and punch and wacked (sic) the pin, and in a split second as the pin fell out the lift came crashing down.”
Masciarelli said he immediately raised the lift off Rue and called 911. An ambulance took Rue to WakeMed. He died the following evening.
The answers to their confusion were at their fingertips. Mears said the operator’s manual was with the lift.
Struggling with ‘what if’
As Rue neared retirement, he and his wife, Marlene, were building a two-story brick home in the coastal town of Belhaven. He’d be two blocks from the water, an opportune place for an avid fisherman. They wanted to move in right after his retirement, and they had flooring and appliances taking up much of the garage of their Willow Spring home.
On Friday, Marlene Rue, a longtime SBI administrative assistant, struggled with the what ifs. She said her husband should have received continued training, and his co-worker should have been trained before trying to set up the machine.
“It just amazes me that you could pull that one pin out, and it can have a fatal consequence,” she said.
She said one way she gets through each day when she comes home – and doesn’t see him in his favorite chair – is to imagine that he’s still at work, or down in Belhaven, finishing up their retirement home.