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Survivors of a fatality can struggle for answers

Editorial by Dave Johnson, Industrial Safety and Hygiene News Editor. Originally published on April 1, 2020  Lisa and Pius “Gene” Hobbs lived on and worked a 200-acre, third-generation family farm in Meade County, Kentucky, 42 miles southwest of Louisville. Lisa still lives there. Her son, Jeremy, runs the farm. Gene Hobbs was working for the Meade County Road Department, raking along the edge of a road shortly after noon, when he was run over by a dump truck backing up, killing him upon impact, on December 13, 2016. He was 62. His injuries were so gruesome his casket had to be kept closed at his funeral. Gene and Lisa, high school sweethearts, were married 41 years.  “I have people say, ‘It was meant to be’,” says Lisa. “No it wasn’t. I just shake my head. They believe what they want to believe.  “I had no idea anything like this could happen.”  “They couldn’t tell me anything” In the basement of the house at “Camp Pius,” Lisa Hobbs has a table covered with documents, tabbed and highlighted, detailing everything that has happened since her husband’s death. Lisa described to the Meade County Messenger those first days after the accident as “complete confusion, lost, didn’t know what I was supposed to do.” When the police and deputy coroner came to her house December 13th, “they really couldn’t tell me anything,” she told the Messenger. “It was so frustrating. I mean, nobody has any idea how frustrating it is not to be able to have some kind of answers,” Lisa told the newspaper.  A rumor was quickly spread by a county employee that Gene had suffered a heart attack which caused him to be backed over. The official autopsy reported no signs of Gene having a heart attack. This was the beginning of a long series of conflicting, often contradictory information regarding the accident and Gene’s death.  The Kentucky State Trooper who had worked the scene told the family three times that the backup alarm on the truck did not work. He echoed what the coroner had already told the family: something wasn’t right with this case. Gene’s road crew came to the funeral, including the man driving the dump truck. According to Lisa, they all said, “We don’t know anything. We didn’t see anything. We don’t know.”  “They were so close; they were all friends,” says Lisa. “Maybe they were afraid of losing their jobs. I don’t know if I could live with myself holding out information like they did. No one from the road department talks to me anymore. Maybe they’ve been told not to. It makes you feel bad.”  Kentucky’s investigation: The Kentucky OSHA inspector assigned to the case (Kentucky operates a state plan OSHA program) met with the family for the first time almost a month after Gene’s death. He told them he couldn’t talk about his ongoing investigation. But he did say he had tested the truck’s backup alarm and it worked.  The inspector’s final report stated that Gene walked behind the truck and into a blind spot only after it had begun to back up. Nothing was said about Gene raking gravel. The inspector found the Meade County Road Department faultless of any violations of Federal or State OSHA standards. Or, as a supervisor with the state worker safety agency told the Messenger, Gene just “zigged when he should have zagged.” Blame the victim. The investigation was closed in February, 2017.  “I gave up,” says Lisa. “Well, that was it, I thought. I just couldn’t believe it. I just didn’t know what else to do. Lawyers said there was nothing there. Then the coroner told me about Ron Hayes; said I really needed to talk to him. I was beside myself at this point.”  Carrying on the fight: Ron Hayes, the co-founder of Families in Grief Hold Together (FIGHT), has been advocating for workplace safety improvements and helping families who have lost loved ones in work fatalities since losing his son, Patrick, in 1993 when he suffocated to death inside a grain silo. Ron asked the Hobbs family, “Who was an eye-witness to the death?” The Kentucky OSHA inspector put in his final report that the witness added nothing to the story.  The family filed a Complaint About State Program Administration (CASPA) due to the way the case was handled, bringing in a Federal OSHA investigator. He obtained a sworn statement from the witness. The witness, who lived nearby, was waiting in his car to be waved around the road work. His testimony: “The (truck) driver was in a hurry. When the truck backed up, it ran over him (Gene). The whole truck jumped when he hit the victim. The driver couldn’t see me trying to wave him off, and he proceeded forward and ran over the victim a second time. The driver never saw the man until he ran over him the second time. He got out of the truck and said to me, ‘I didn’t see him. I just ran over my best friend.’ They said the truck had a backup alarm, but I never heard it.”  The witness says he has had many sleepless nights since viewing the incident.  The local OSHA area director told the Messenger that had the witness been interviewed on the scene, it would likely have changed the outcome of this investigation. His report identified multiple possible violations against Meade County, including training violations, management inspection violations and a general duty clause violation for the employer’s failure to protect employees.  Still, the Kentucky OSHA report remains gospel, the official story of what supposedly happened that day.  More than three years after Gene’s death, Lisa asks, “Where are we now? I think there needs to be an apology that a lot of people didn’t do their jobs. Everything needs to be in the open. Nothing will bring him back. But things covered up need to be out in the open. People say, ‘What in world, does she want to get rich?’ It’s never been about money. Money don’t make you happy, you know. — Dave Johnson, ISHN Editor, johnsond@bnpmedia.com

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