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Potlatch: Investigation into worker’s death continues

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BEMIDJI — The investigation into a Grand Rapids man’s death at a Bemidji lumber mill is ongoing, but OSHA spokesperson Jenny O’Brien said no definitive timeline could be placed on the organization’s findings.

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Representatives from OSHA are at the Potlatch Lumber Mill, where on Saturday, Mitchell Lee Harthan, 23, died. Harthan, along with a portion of the catwalk on which he was walking, fell 40 to 50 feet, according to a release from the Hubbard County Sheriff’s Office.

"They’ll talk to other employees to see if there was any training that wasn’t done, and just make sure all safety precautions are being done," O’Brien said.

Why the catwalk fell isn’t known, but the mill’s manager, Pete Aube, said Harthan was performing maintenance on a conveyor at the time of the fall.

"They’ll pull in any kind of specialist they need to confer with," O’Brien said, referencing whether an engineer might be required to find the cause of the catwalk’s fall.

Aube said Tuesday that the company is performing its own review of the incident that led to the accident.

"We do internal investigations on every safety issue, and that investigation (into Harthan’s death) is still ongoing," Aube said.

O’Brien said Potlatch could be fined up to $50,000 if an unsafe workplace environment or improper training or safety precautions are found to have played a role in Harthan’s death. She also said investigations can be lengthy.

"It really depends case to case," O’Brien said. "There was one that I would have to check back on each year because it kept dragging on through the courts."

Saturday’s accident was the first fatality in 25 years at a Bemidji Potlatch facility. Cecil Dean Smith, 40, of Cass lake, died at the company’s oriented strand board (OSB) plant on July 15, 1988. The plant was purchased from Potlatch by Ainsworth Lumber Co. in 2004 and closed in 2009.

Cecil was working near a conveyor belt when he became partially engaged with the belt and came into contact with a metal plate. Potlatch was fined $348 as a result of OSHA’s investigation.

Potlatch became a member of OSHA’s Minnesota Star worksite program (MNSTAR) in 2002 and was recertified in 2010 for five years, O’Brien said.

"(The program) recognizes companies where managers and employees work together to develop safety and health management systems that go beyond basic compliance with all applicable OSHA standards and result in immediate and long-term prevention of job-related injuries and illnesses," O’Brien wrote in an email. "There are currently 32 MNSTAR worksites in Minnesota."

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Justin Glawe
Reporting on crime, courts and Beltrami county government. Follow me on Twitter @JustinGlawe.
(218) 333-9200 x343
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