State reports outline details of tragic episode in Westfall that left two men dead

The Malheur County Sheriff’s Office along with the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division investigated an accident that killed two men near Westfall in March. (The Enterprise/FILE)

WESTFALL – A ranch manager was trying to rescue another man from runaway construction equipment in an accident last March that left both men dead, according to reports recently released by the state.

The deaths may have been caused by a fallen lunch box.

Roger Wheeler, 50, an independent contractor overseeing the Indian Creek Ranch west of Vale, and Greg Juant, 57, an employee of ACW Inc. a Hines contractor, died when an excavator ran them over at a worksite on Bully Creek Road near Westfall March 12.

The Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration subsequently cited the Hines company for not ensuring its workers were correctly trained to operate a John Deere 225DLC excavator. The company paid a $2,200 fine.

The ranch is owned by a Missouri company, state records showed.

The agency’s investigation found that the failure to turn off the excavator when the operator was outside the cab as the root cause of the deadly accident.

“It is the employer’s responsibility to make sure the standards are met. The standard for operating that piece of equipment safely was not followed by the employer,” said Aaron Corvin, a spokesman for the state agency.

According to investigation records released to the Enterprise, Jaunt that morning was operating the excavator to dig an access road across Indian Creek.

Wheeler and another worker, Brian Sleight, arrived at the site before 8:45 a.m. According to the investigation report, Wheeler walked toward the excavator and began to talk to Jaunt who “was standing on the east track of the excavator next to the entrance of the cab of the excavator.”

Sleight told investigators that he looked “east towards the horse barn (away from the excavator) for a moment and when he looked back he saw Greg (Jaunt) fall off the east track of the excavator to the center of the machine (between both tracks).”

At that point, according to the report, the excavator advanced away from the creek with no operator.

That’s when Wheeler made a split-second decision, according to report.

“Brian (Sleight) saw Roger race to the west side of the excavator in an attempt to rescue Greg.”

According to the report, Sleight ran toward the now moving excavator to stop it.

“Brian reported that he reached over the track and pushed the red safety handle upwards to shut off the hydraulics to the excavator. The machine stopped. Brian reported that the excavator traveled between 20 and 25 feet in a matter of seconds,” said the report.

Sleight, according to the report, then walked to the west side of the machine and found “both Roger and Greg under the west track.”

Investigators found a lunch box between the excavator windshield and directional control levers on the machine.

An ACW employee told investigators that “Greg is an outstanding operator and has always been very safe while operating the excavator.”

He said Juant “always has his lunch box in the excavator with him. The cab of the excavator is small so anytime Greg exits the machine he places his lunch box up against the front window and it also rest against the lever of the machine.”

Andy Root, ACW president, told investigators “he believed that Greg’s coat hooked on the pilot control shutoff lever which resulted in the excavator moving forward because Greg’s lunch box was pushing on the directional controls.”

Root state investigators that “before the accident he did not require employees to turn off the engine to the excavator prior to exiting the cab of the excavator.”

Root said in a recent interview with the Enterprise that turning off an excavator before leaving the cab “is now our policy.”

Corvin said the focus of the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health agency investigation was to determine if the employer violated safety mandates, not to discover how the machine went into gear.

“From our standpoint when we open an investigation we are laser-focused on workplace health standards, literally the requirements laid out, and were they followed or not?” said Corvin.

The key, said Corvin, was that the excavator was running when it should not have been.

Root said the death of Juant was a hard hit for his firm.

“He wasn’t just a good employee, he was a good friend. It was like losing a brother,” said Root.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected].

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