Last November, the roof caved in at Woodgrain Millwork in Prineville, Oregon after heavy snow. In part one of this two-part investigation, we look at the circumstances around the roof collapse. Former Woodgrain workers describe an environment where building maintenance was lax and the roof leaked for years.
On a snowy day last November, Tod Halsey noticed something strange about the roof at Woodgrain Millwork. A section of the roof was sagging between two beams.
Halsey: You could literally see a bow in the roof. It looked like it was smiling there.
Halsey was a forklift driver. He says he had reported the sagging roof to a supervisor the day before. But now, it looked worse. So he went to get a manager to take a second look.
Halsey: We come around a corner…back into the cut shop. I heard a pop. And then all the sudden the roof opened up and you could see the sky. And then it come down
As Halsey watched, a section of the roof -- larger than a football field-- collapsed directly in his path. Had it fallen a little later, Halsey says he would have been underneath it.
The power went out and the air clouded with dust.
Halsey: Indescribable. You could just hear metal bending and water running.
Nobody was hurt. But Halsey didn't know that at the time. He spent the next hour beaming the lights of his forklift into the darkness, searching for his co-workers.
Now, when former workers talk about the roof collapse they tend to say similar things:
Godat: "I just thank God that nobody was killed. Cause I don' t think it would have been a maiming, I think the would have died."
Rufener : “The roof came all the way down to the floor right where people were usually working,”
Helmholtz: If it happened fifteen minutes earlier we might have been going to funerals.
That’s Mary Sanislo, Sam Rufener, and Henry Helmholtz, all former Woodgrain employees.
At least sixteen people regularly worked cutting lumber under the area where the roof came down. But some stayed home because of the snow. And a key piece of equipment was frozen on the morning of the collapse. So others who worked in the area were in a different part of the mill when the roof caved.
Woodgrain declined requests for an interview with OPB. But the Woodgrain Millwork Vice President, Greg Easton, emailed a brief statement to OPB. Easton wrote: “Clearly the building is not new, but I had no reason to believe the integrity of the building was in doubt.”
Woodgrain is headquartered in Idaho. It owns five mills similar to the one in Prineville. Here's how the company describes itself in a video posted on YouTube:
Video: Woodgrain Millwork is a global manufacturing company. We manufacture things like doors, moldings, and wood windows that are put into homes all over the country.
OPB interviewed 23 former workers about the Prineville facility. They told OPB that the roof leaked throughout the mill. They say water leaked on saws, electrical panels, and people. They describe falling insulation, and visible holes in the roof. Sarah Johnson-Hartman graded lumber at Woodgrain.
Johnson-Hartman: I mean it was like one drip constant on my forehead. It’s hard when you’re grading to have water coming down your face.
Peggy Murphy worked at the mill for twenty years.
Murphy: Some of them it wasn’t just a drip it was a downpour on some of those machines.
Oregon’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration sent an inspector to visit the mill after the roof collapse, because of an anonymous complaint. But the OSHA inspector did not cite Woodgrain after the collapse. His report noted the roof fell after a snowfall. Woodgrain told the inspector that the roof was leaking just before it came down. The report noted a leak near an electrical panel, that the company covered with plastic.
During any site visit, inspectors can probe employers about safety concerns. But OSHA says the inspector didn’t ask Woodgrain how long the roof had leaked. Michael Wood is the state administrator for OSHA.
Wood: This inspection could have been more thorough. With the ability to look at it in retrospect it certainly should have been more thorough. He should have talked to some additional folks.
But Wood adds that the inspector did what he was supposed to do. His focus was on the collapse.
Wood: Because no one had been injured or killed, he handled it as a fairly routine inspection.
For Tod Halsey, the worker who saw the roof collapse right in front of him, there’s one memory that sticks with him. When he was in the cut shop right after the collapse, he noted where some of his coworkers normally would have been standing.
Halsey: There’s a three-foot round blowpipe. That was laying on top of all their cut saws. If that cut shop at that time wouldn’t have been broke down them people would have been squished."
That image still haunts him.
Copyright 2015 OPB.