‘Indy Star’ Photog’s Death Prompts State OSHA Investigation

By: Joe Strupp

Indiana state officials are investigating whether The Indianapolis Star violated state workplace safety requirements, following the death of a Star photographer who collapsed in the newsroom earlier this month.

“We became aware that there was a death at the work site and we are investigating to determine whether or not there were OSHA violations associated with the death,” said Tim Grogg, a special assistant commissioner with the Indiana Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration office. He said the agency became aware of the death within the last two weeks, but did not know if the employer had reported it as required by state law.

“Anytime we become aware of it, whether it is reported by the employer or another way, it is our statutory duty to do an investigation,” Grogg added. “I don’t know how many people [at the Star] they have had an opportunity to interview, but they have been to the site within the last two weeks.”

Meanwhile, a war of words between the Star’s editor and a former columnist-turned-blogger has erupted over ongoing questions about the death of the photographer, Mpozi Tolbert, who died at a local hospital an hour after collapsing at his desk in the Star newsroom July 3.

Former columnist Ruth Holladay, who retired after 37 years at the paper on June 30 and blogs at www.ruthholladay.com, launched the first shot July 22 with a lengthy posting that claimed co-workers were unable to properly help Tolbert because they could not call 911 from newsroom phones. The posting received more attention on Tuesday when it was linked by the Poynter.org Romenesko site.

“That night, nobody could dial 911 from the newsroom. [Star owner] Gannett wants all such calls to go through to security, at extension 4900 and located on the first floor, so that security can exert control,” the blog item stated, in part. “The woman working security that night, who got the calls from the second floor, does not speak English with much skill. So she had a hard time getting a grasp on the situation and began asking a lot of questions rather than getting on the horn right away to 911. Meanwhile, horrified, frantic copy editors and others whipped out their cell phones to dial 911.”

Holladay also complained that employees were not properly trained in emergency life-saving techniques such as CPR.

Star Senior Vice President & General Manager Ali Zoibi quickly responded Tuesday with a strong denial to the 911 phone limitation claim, stating “Any Star employee can call 911 from Star phones. In fact, employees and our security staff used Star phones to make calls that night.”

Star Editor Dennis Ryerson, who has not returned calls from E&P, also responded to Holladay’s claims with a memo to staffers that Holladay posted on her site. “It is reprehensible, frankly I find it outrageous, that somebody would use this very sad circumstance to lambaste The Star and its owners.” The memo stated. “But that noise is what passes for fact these days in too many blogs. This is why I insist, and will continue to insist, that we set ourselves apart from that noise by providing complete, credible, fair reporting, in every section every day, in print and on line.”

Publisher Barbara Henry has not spoken publicly on the issue and has not returned E&P calls for comment.

Today, Holladay countered Ryerson with another posting that defended her claims. “The concerns expressed about Mpozi’s death did not come from the Putnam County dream factory, where I live,” she wrote. “They came from men and women in the newsroom who were there that night. They are legitimate concerns and they deserve recognition, publication and discussion. They deserve notice, which was not happening in The Star, but underground. Dennis can say the phones worked. Others have a different story.”

Leaders of the Indianapolis News Guild, which represents newsroom workers at the paper, have been reluctant to support or criticize the newspaper’s statements, noting that the union is simply looking for all of the facts.

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