November 7, 2013 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 1Comment

[Update below (April 10, 2015)]

“They sure kept that quiet.”

My neighbors had that reaction when I told them about the 20-year old worker who was killed on-the-job at one of the Schlitterbahn water parks. This particular amusement-park company has four large water resorts in Texas and Kansas. My neighbors frequent the one in New Braunfels, TX, along with 900,000 other annual visitors, during central Texas’ hot spring and summer months. I knew they’d want to know this story.

In March 2013, Nicolas “Nico” Benavides, 20, had been hired as a lifeguard, and had only been working a few weeks at the Schlitterbahn on South Padre Island. Benavides and another worker were doing maintenance on the guts of a wave pool. News accounts report that an overhead mechanical door

“slammed down, hitting Benavides in the head, leaving him and the other worker pinned beneath it.”

The young man’s family kept him on life support for several days until his organs could be donated.

Schlitterbahn issued a statement saying, in part,

“Nico Benavides, who was injured during a March 6 maintenance accident has died.  …The safety of our employees and guests is of paramount importance to us.” [emphasis added]

This was no accident. An accident is an event that cannot be foreseen, or occurs by chance. Nico Benavides’ death was neither.

OSHA’s investigation of the incident revealed that Schlitterbahn management did not have a lock-out/tag-out program. This is a basic, but vital, safety procedures that’s been on OSHA’s books since 1989. (Many companies adopted lock-out/tag-out programs long before the OSHA regulation took affect.) An employer must ensure that when maintenance or repair is being done on a piece of equipment, a pad lock or a tag is placed on the power source (e.g., an electrical circuit breaker) to disable the equipment. A pad lock—with a code or key—is stored by the worker who’s doing the repair. This simple practice is design to prevent someone else from turning the power back on, with the deadly consequences that result.

Benavides’ death was hardly an accident, and hardly a demonstration of Schlitterbahn’s assertion of its “paramount importance” for safety. The 20-year old is dead because of his employer’s actions.

OSHA issued citations to Schlitterbahn (under a parent company called Enterprize Management, Inc.*) for several violations, including one classified as willful, and proposed a $96,000 penalty.  The company has contested the citations and penalty, meaning the case could drag on for years.

For the last 16 years, Schlitterbahn’s resorts have been name the “Best Waterpark” by Amusement Today, a trade publication for the industry. Obviously, amusement parks that cause the death of an employee are not rejected from the awards competition.

*[Info in the parentheses was added 1/28/2014]

[4/10/2015 Update:  OSHA and Enterprize Management reached a formal settlement of the citations and penalties in this case.  The willful violation was reclassified as a repeat violation and the remaining five serious violations remained in place. The company agreed to pay $66,000 penalty, instead of the originally proposed $96,000.]

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