A life lost for sixty dollars

Justus Booze, Guilderland

Justus Booze with his fiancée, Kristen Hickey.

GUILDERLAND — Twenty-three-year-old Justus Andrew Booze thought his family could use $60. So he said yes when a friend asked if he wanted to help out for a day, last Wednesday,  at a local tree-cutting service that was short-handed.

He left for work that morning, May 4, at about 6:30, sending his fiancée a text at 8 a.m., saying that he loved her. By about 1:15 that afternoon he was dead, entangled in a wood chipper in the road in front of a luxury home on Guilderland’s Placid Drive.

His fiancée, Kristen Hickey, wonders why an employer would set Booze — a temporary employee who had “no idea what he was doing” — to the task of using a wood chipper to grind up a cut tree that day. He had no experience with that kind of work, she said.

Several messages left for Tony Watson of Countryside Tree Care, his employer for the day, were not returned. Later, the phone was answered, by a woman who said that Watson was “devastated” and that he was “not going to talk to anybody.”

“I don’t get it,” Hickey said recently. “He could have been just carrying brush or something. Why would you put somebody that has no idea what they’re doing right there?”

They were planning to marry at Schenectady’s city hall in two weeks, she said. (See obituary.)


Photo from Justus Andrew Booze’s Facebook page
Close bond: Justus Booze is shown here with the two younger of his fiancée’s three children, Olivia Torres and Joshua Ramos.


The investigation

The United States Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the incident, said James Lally, Deputy Director for Public Affairs with the department.

If the inspection finds violations, Lally said, OSHA could issue citations and propose fines for the employer.

Countryside Tree Care has not had any citations in the past, Lally said.

Asked how long the investigation is likely to take, Amy Phillips, assistant area director for OSHA’s Albany office, said, “We have six months, and it will probably take that long. Fatalities generally get a higher level of review.”


Protecting employees

All employees, including temporary employees, have the right to a safe workplace, according to the OSHA website.

Employers are obligated to give temporary workers the same or equivalent training as any other employee receives, in hazard awareness and safety procedures, the website says.

An OSHA memorandum from July 2014 said that temporary workers are “at increased risk of work-related injury and illness.”

It also said, “In recent months, OSHA has received and investigated many reports of temporary workers suffering serious or fatal injuries, some in their first days on the job.”

“Employers should closely supervise newly hired employees to ensure that they are safely operating the chipper and should reinforce training through regular safety talks and unannounced site visits,” notes “Hazards of Wood Chippers” on the OSHA website.

Training should cover how to operate the machine and use its safety controls; the manufacturer’s instructions on operation, inspection, and maintenance; proper procedures for start-up and shutdown; and correct use and maintenance of personal protective equipment such as gloves, eye and face protection, a helmet, and close-fitting clothes, it says.

The website gives the example of an operator who had been feeding branches into a chipper in Denver, Colorado when he was pulled in. The investigation found that he usually stood to the side of the chipper feed table, as he was supposed to, in order to have easy access to the feed control bar (which usually has an emergency stop device). However, the investigation found, in this case, the operator was standing directly in front of the in-feed chute. The gloves that he was wearing to protect his hands had cuffs, which, like loose clothing, are dangerous for chipper operators. The investigation determined that it was possible that a tree branch snagged on a cuff of his glove and pulled him into the machine. He was killed instantly upon contact with the rotating knives, it says.



“Hazards of Wood Chippers,” on the OSHA website, lists “being caught in moving parts” as the first hazard, and warns, “You can be seriously injured or killed if you are caught in the equipment’s moving parts.”

The agency’s records show that between 1996 and 2005, thirty-nine workers were killed by wood chippers in the United States. Of these, “the vast majority (78 percent)” resulted from being caught in the chipper. The remainder were workers who were struck by pieces of wood or other objects loaded into the chipper.

“Hazards” relates the story of the OSHA investigation into the death of an employee of a landscaping service killed in a wood chipper in 1997 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida: “An employee was chipping branches when the chipper became jammed. He tried to unjam the machine and was caught in the in-feed roller and chipped to death by the blades.” It concludes, “Never reach into a running chipper/shredder.”

There are numerous instances described on the OSHA website of employee deaths involving wood chippers. People can be pulled in when they stand directly in front of the in-feed chute instead of to the side; when they reach in to try to clear a jam; when they kick at or push on a branch that’s stuck; or when they load in an armful of fine, raked-up debris.

A research program that tracks deaths and seeks to prevent occupational injuries by making investigative reports available to the public and by making recommendations for prevention strategies to those who can intervene in the workplace is the New York Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation program, part of the New York State Department of Health. NY FACE looked into a 2005 incident in which a Guatemalan tree-service worker was pulled into a brush chipper, according to a post on OSHA’s website.

The service owner and the employee had been trimming trees at a residence; the owner had climbed a tree and was cutting branches and passing them down to the victim. After passing a few limbs to the victim, the owner heard him yelling and saw that he was being pulled into the chipper.

After this incident, NY FACE recommended that employers:

Ensure that workers fully understand and strictly follow the safe operating procedures recommended by the manufacturer of a brush chipper;

Train workers in safe and proper feeding technique to avoid being pulled in;

Designate another employee as a safety watch to assist the brush chipper operator; and

Ensure that the area in front of the in-feed hopper is free of tripping hazards.


Photo from Kristen Hickey
This angry note written by the 7-year-old daughter of Justus Booze’s fiancée soon after his fatal accident starts out addressing Justus but soon shifts into speaking directly to God. It reads: “Dear Justus / god take you / away you / Did he take / him back you have / no right so again / you have no right / to take him / that’s my stepfather / have no right to take / him back bad god / bad god bad.”


Booze’s family

That day, Hickey got a Facebook message from a friend to call the owner of the tree-cutting service on his phone. Her first thought was that Justus’s cell phone had probably died and he wanted to let her know how his day was going.

When she called, she reached not the owner, but an employee, who told her what had happened. She didn’t want to believe it.

“I showed up at the crime scene,” she said. “They wouldn’t let me back there. I don’t blame them for not letting me back there. They didn’t even want me to come, but something like that — I had to be there. I couldn’t stay in my house and do nothing. I would have gone crazy.

“I still can’t wrap my head around everything,” Hickey said. “My fiancée went to work one day, and he didn’t come home. It’s not fair.”

She said she has been trying to stay “very, very busy. That’s my way of coping. When it gets quiet, that’s when it starts to sink in, and hurt the most.”

She said that Booze was not trained in the use of wood chippers, and “should not have been on that machine, period.”

Every day, she said, “I pray to God: Why couldn’t it have been his legs, or his arms, but not him? He was so young, and just starting a new chapter in his life.”

The incident has caused her to question her faith, she said.

And she isn’t the only one.

Hickey’s daughter, 7-year-old Olivia Torres, showed her mother a note she wrote “to God” soon after the accident. The young girl’s note tells God that he had no right to take her stepfather. It ends with “bad God, bad God, bad.”


Wood chipper safety

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration outlines these safe work practices for companies that use wood chippers.

When operating a chipper or shredder:  

— You should wear close-fitting clothes and no jewelry, and long hair pulled back. You should not wear loose shirt sleeves, pant legs or jewelry, or gloves with cuffs, any of which can catch in the equipment’s moving parts, resulting in injury.

— You should wear long pants, without cuffs, to protect your legs from objects that could be thrown from the chipper. Sturdy, non-slip boots will help you keep a firm footing on the ground and reduce the risk of slipping and falling into the chipper/shredder.

— Workers should be trained on the safe operation of chipper machines. Always supervise new workers using a chipper to ensure that they work safely and never endanger themselves or others.

— Never reach into a chipper while it is operating.

— Always work in groups of two or more.

— Be sure to feed branches from the side of the chute, not in front of it. This will reduce the risk of being caught and dragged into the machine. Standing to the side of the equipment will also make it easier for you to reach the emergency shut-off switch in the event of an accident.

— Use a push stick to help feed small pieces and brush through the chipper or shredder to keep you at a distance from the machine’s moving parts. Do not push materials into the chute with your hands or feet, pitchforks, or shovels.

— Let go of material as soon as it begins to be pulled into the machine and walk away, to avoid being hit or dragged into the chipper by limbs you are feeding.


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