Arrest of excavator operator in Philly building collapse raises questions about marijuana legalization, contractor regulations

Updated Jun 11, 2013
Sean Benschop, 42, turned himself in to authorities after a toxicology report found he was high while operating an excavator during the collapse of a Philadelphia building that killed 6.Sean Benschop, 42, turned himself in to authorities after a toxicology report found he was high while operating an excavator during the collapse of a Philadelphia building that killed 6.

After an investigation of what caused the demolition of a downtown Philadelphia building to turn deadly, a 42-year-old equipment operator named Sean Benschop turned himself in to authorities Saturday night after a warrant was issued for his arrest.

According to the Associated Press, a toxicology report found that Benschop was allegedly high on marijuana as he operated an excavator aiding in the demolition. An eyewitness told Reuters and investigators that he saw what looked like a backhoe collide with the rear wall of the building just before the building collapsed onto a thrift store next door, killing six people and injuring 13 more. It’s likely that the eyewitness only saw the bucket of the machine.

Following the toxicology report, authorities raided Benschop’s home and then issued a warrant for his arrest. According to the AP, Benschop is no stranger to trouble with the law. He also goes by the name Kary Roberts and “has been arrested at least 11 times since 1994 on charges ranging from drugs to theft to weapons possession,” the AP reported.

In light of the arrest, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said he plans to reform construction site regulation in the city with changes including random drug testing on equipment operators. Nutter said he also plans to adopt tougher background requirements for demolition contractors, requiring “information about each worker’s experience, and more frequent site inspections when demolitions are underway.”

Two survivors of the collapse have sued Griffin Campbell, the contractor running the demolition, alleging gross recklessness at the site. The AP reports that the contractor “has a criminal background and has filed for bankruptcy twice.”

In addition to the question of whether demolition contractors should be more heavily regulated, the situation also brings up questions our own Tom Jackson has asked in the past about the legalization of marijuana and its impact on the construction industry.

In a January 4 column, Tom asked “[In legalization states] can you drug test someone now and fire them if they test positive for pot? I don’t think the states or the human resources professionals have worked out the details yet, but I’m almost certain the answer is no. If consumption of the product is legal, what grounds do you have to fire them?”

Though legalization in Pennsylvania would definitely have made this situation a bit more complicated, if this had happened in a state where weed is legal like Colorado or Washington, it’s hard to imagine the result—an arrest and likely conviction—wouldn’t be the same.

But it does spotlight the need for contractors and construction groups to be proactive on the issue. The National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators has already announced that any of its certified operators who test positive for marijuana will be stripped of their certification regardless of the stance the state they reside in takes on legalization.

Alcohol is legal across the country and there are already standards that prohibit its consumption before or during the use of heavy equipment. The sooner contractors and the industry begin working on similar regulations that target marijuana, the better.