The City Union of Baltimore and the AFT are launching efforts to bolster safety measures and help members with grief counseling after the death June 3 of Trina Cunningham, a CUB member, at the Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant in south Baltimore.
Cunningham was a supervisor at the city plant, where it appears that she fell through a catwalk into a vat of wastewater. As soon as she went missing that evening, her colleagues called emergency responders. Fire officials determined that she fell about 20 feet from a hole in the grating into the tank. Her body was recovered some 600 to 1,000 feet downstream. A glove and a handheld meter were found near where she fell.
“All of us here at the City Union of Baltimore are deeply saddened at the tragic death of Trina Cunningham,” said CUB President Antoinette Ryan-Johnson, who had rushed to the scene that evening with other CUB officers. “Each of her colleagues spoke highly of her commitment and dedication to the job.”
Cunningham, a supervisor and Department of Public Works employee of the month, had worked for the city for 20 years. Her last three were at the wastewater plant, where she quickly rose through the ranks, earning the respect of co-workers. She leaves behind a wife and son.
Ryan-Johnson says the tragedy calls into question workplace safety protocols for those who ensure that public works are safe for everyone. She has visited the plant’s administration building and calls working conditions there “deplorable.” For one thing, she’s been told the third and fourth floors of the building are condemned. “There are a lot of issues,” the CUB president says. “We are still reaching out to members.”
“Each employee, private or public, deserves a safe work environment to do their job,” she said in a statement, adding that any fatality on the job is unacceptable. “Our employees deserve to have working conditions that are fully compliant with state and federal regulations.”
The Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation is investigating the case, as is Maryland Occupational Safety and Health, whose employees include AFT members belonging to the Maryland Professional Employees Council. The AFT expects to file a complaint with MOSH soon. The head of Baltimore’s wastewater bureau has ordered inspections of every facility, a process that, if it includes a detailed “wall-to-wall” inspection of all the city’s treatment plants, could take months.
Our union has asked for experienced water quality chemist Sadikia Caldarazzo, a CUB area vice president, to be added immediately to the investigation as required under the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. Caldarazzo works at the city’s Ashburton plant, which tests and treats drinking water. The city has four water treatment plants, two freshwater and two wastewater, the oldest of which was built about a century ago.
Meanwhile, CUB and AFT leaders and staff have been meeting with city officials and representatives from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which also represents many Baltimore city employees. As CUB awaits results of the investigation, Ryan-Johnson says, the union will be working with AFSCME and the Office of the Labor Commissioner to ensure that every worksite is safe for city employees. Email communications among city employees, however, are still being hampered by a ransomware attack on the city’s computer system more than a month ago.
AFT health and safety experts say it has not been determined whether pieces of the grated flooring of the Patapsco catwalk were already missing, or whether the grating gave way underfoot. If built correctly and maintained well, catwalks prevent workers from falling, so there’s no need for additional fall protection. If employees are doing work through an opening in the grate, however, then precautions must be taken to guard the opening. The fact remains that there are very few workplace “accidents,” because if the employer knows there’s a problem and does nothing about it, then it’s not an accident.
The AFT sent a “demand letter” to the city so that Department of Public Works staff would have time off for Cunningham’s funeral, as well as immediate and long-term access to mental health counseling. Vigils for Cunningham took place in the days following her death. A viewing was held June 12 and a memorial service on June 14 in Baltimore.