Matt Driscoll

Jaw-dropping safety fine against Rainiers nearly erased after team plays ball with L&I

The fine was jaw dropping.

The reaction? A mix of shock, anger, and — if we’re being honest — a healthy dose of amusement.

In January, I reported on the state Department of Labor and Industries fining Tacoma’s Triple-A ball club, the Tacoma Rainiers, nearly $60,000 for three safety infraction. The most costly of those offenses — deemed by L&I to be a “willful violation,” meaning the team either knew or should have known better — resulted in a $56,000 fine all by itself.

It was a misstep this columnist was intimately aware of.

That’s because, as part of my ongoing quest for journalistic excellence, I followed Rhubarb, the Rainiers’ beloved mascot, and Epic Sax Gorilla, the team’s gyrating, sax-playing ape, onto Cheney Stadium’s roof the previous summer.

Without using fall protection, like a safety harness or tether.

As I later learned the hard way, that’s a big no-no. After a months-long investigation by L&I — confirming what we’d proudly printed photographic evidence of on the front page of The News Tribune — the hammer came down.

I’m happy to report, however, that this is not where the story ended.

As L&I spokesman Tim Church confirmed this week, the Rainiers and the state were able to reach a unique settlement agreement earlier this year.

Church describes the deal, which reduced the Rainiers’ fine from nearly $60,000 to a mere $8,000, as a first for him during his time at the state agency. The “willful violation,” which carries a standard 10-times multiplier, was amended to a “serious violation,” meaning the associated fine dropped from $56,000 to $5,600.

While seeing a fine reduced is fairly common, Church says, what’s uncommon is the compromise the two sides reached to get there.

In addition to hiring a certified safety professional to assess hazards at the stadium and review team safety programs, the agreement calls for the team to produce three workplace safety videos to be shown between innings at games and during Reign FC and Tacoma Defiance matches.

The deal also calls for a series of full page workplace safety themed ads in the teams’ game day programs.

According to Church, one of the allures for L&I in the deal was the Rainiers “large fan base,” which the agency believes will be “really good .. to reach with workplace safety messages.”

While Church acknowledges that, “ideally, you never want a safety violation to occur in the first place,” he notes that the settlement protects the team’s employees in the future and “helps reach the general public with information about workplace safety.”

“This is an opportunity to work together and have a positive outcome,” Church says. “That certainly makes us happy.”

Understandably, it also makes Rainiers’ president Aaron Artman happy, and not just because it saves his team from writing a big check.

“In a sense, this is how these things should work,” Artman says, adding that the team’s violations came down “ignorance to what the laws are.”

“That’s not an excuse, which is why I think is why we’re still paying the fines that we’re paying,” Artman says. “We’re fortunate to have a platform where we can tell (L&I’s) stories in a way that people will see. I’m pleased with how it all ended up, and I just can’t think of a better way to kind of put a happy ending on it in a way that actually means something.”

Much like my foray on Cheney Stadium’s roof, the Rainiers’ newly produced workplace safety videos will feature Rhubarb and Epic Sax Gorilla, Artman says.

Though Artman says government agencies, like L&I, aren’t “always known for being fun,” he believes the new videos and ads will be an exception to that rule.

“I think their willingness to tell these stories in a way that uses the characters that got us in trouble initially is actually pretty powerful,” he says, “and I think more people will pay attention to it.”

Artman also says the collaboration with the agency has helped restore his faith in L&I, affirming that the agency does more than just levy big fines.

“It shows that they’re actually reasonable and care more about teaching people how to do the right thing and keeping people safe than going out and busting them,” Artman says. “This kind of flies in the face of my (initial) perception.”

It certainly does.

Using fall protection, of course.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.