Dole fined after driver killed in January forklift accident

| 7/30/2007

Arizona’s workplace safety agency has fined Dole Food Co. for violations found during investigations after the January death of trucker Sheila Ross.

The Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health fined Dole a total of $9,000 for two violations after wrapping up a six-month investigation, agency director Darin Perkins told Land Line Magazine on Monday, July 30.

The company was cited for failing to follow its own policy for pedestrian traffic in the warehouse, Perkins said. Dole was also fined for its forklift operators failing to sound warning horns when driving around corners or going into trailers.

Investigators believe Ross – a McCloud, OK, resident – was struck and pushed by a forklift as she either stood or walked along the loading dock at Dole’s Yuma, AZ, produce warehouse on Jan. 27.

At the time, Dane Ross, Sheila’s husband, frantically searched for her, convinced Dole officials to call police, and have all drivers loading at the warehouse to stop and check their loads.

Ross was found dead three days later when a trailer of produce was being unloaded at a Hy-Vee distribution center in Iowa. Police said in February they believed she was crushed by pallets of lettuce being loaded onto driver Hugh Ort’s trailer.

An investigation conducted by Yuma police showed that some forklift operators said they didn’t believe they’d be able to hear or feel hitting someone while moving. That investigation also revealed a dispute over whether Sheila Ross picked up papers from the warehouse office.

In February, Yuma police concluded Sheila Ross’ death to be an accident.

A Dole spokesman did not immediately return a phone call made by Land Line staff Monday seeking comment on the situation.

Neither the investigation nor the agency’s fines mean Dole was responsible for Ross’ death, said Darin Perkins, director of the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health.

“At this point we’re really unsure as to how she got herself into the spot she was in,” Perkins said. The fines are “not correlating directly to the fatality.”

Arizona is one of 26 states or territories that operates its own workplace safety agency and doesn’t defer to the federal Occupational and  Safety Health Administration, though it enforces the same workplace safety standards as the federal agency does.

During the days following Ross’ death, Arizona labor department officials told Land Line the investigation would likely be wrapped up in 45 to 60 days. The investigation, however, ran into several dead ends after it was revealed that no one actually witnessed Ross being hit by the forklift and that Dole officials said no video of the accident existed.

“We’re kind of left with some unanswered questions,” Perkins said.

– By Charlie Morasch, staff writer