OSHA Proposes Fines Over Main Street Incident
October 17, 2009
CONCORD – The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has proposed a total of $55,000 in fines against Northeast Earth Mechanics Inc. of Pittsfield, for alleged willful and serious violations of safety standards following a cave-in at a Main St. sewer installation worksite in Littleton in mid-May.
An OSHA inspector opened an inspection upon observing a Northeast Earth Mechanics Inc. employee working in an apparently unprotected 10- to 11-foot deep excavation. Five minutes after the worker was instructed to exit the excavation, one of its sidewalls collapsed. Had the worker still been in the excavation, he could have been crushed or buried by the cave-in.
"This is a textbook example of how an excavation can become a grave in seconds," said Rosemarie Ohar, OSHA's area director for New Hampshire. "This worker was fortunate – this time. However, worker safety cannot and must not be a matter of luck. Never permit one of your employees into an excavation until its walls are guarded against collapse."
However, according to other sources, OSHA's version of the incident has been blown out of proportion, and represents an unfair accusation.
Witnesses to the incident reported that due to the nature of the excavation in question, a trench-box, used to keep the sides of a hole from collapsing, could not be used, and that there was no one in the hole during the work. As the work was being finished, a small quantity of earth was spilled on a manhole cover in the trench and a worker entered the trench to clean it off. At that point, the OSHA inspector, who reportedly had been watching from a nearby restaurant for some time, approached the project and began taking photos.
As to the collapse of a sidewall, according to witnesses, a small amount of earth "sloughed off" one of the sidewalls into the trench during the OSHA inspector's presence, reportedly nowhere near enough to bury a worker.
OSHA issued Northeast Earth Mechanics Inc. one willful citation, with a proposed fine of $49,000, for not guarding the excavation against collapse; three serious citations with $6,000 in fines for not supporting an undermined section of sidewalk to prevent its collapse into the excavation; and finally for having no safe means for workers to exit the excavation and lack of confined space training and equipment.
OSHA defines a willful violation as one committed with plain indifference to or intentional disregard for employee safety and health. Serious citations are issued when death or serious physical harm is likely to result from hazards about which the employer knew or should have known.
OSHA standards require that all excavations five feet or deeper be protected against collapses before workers enter them.
Northeast Earth Mechanics Inc. has 15 business days from receipt of its citations and proposed penalties to comply, meet with OSHA or contest the finding before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, tentatively scheduled for next week.
The inspection was conducted by OSHA's Concord Area Office.
Jimmy Locke, President of Northeast Earth Mechanics, said that his company will appeal the charges and the fines.
"This was a random incident, and the charges are factually challenged," Locke told The Courier. "The safety of our employees and subcontractors is of paramount importance, and we take it very seriously."
Littleton Town Manager Chuck Connell was surprised by the proposed fines. "This is the first I had heard of OSHA issuing fines over the incident," Connell told The Courier. "Having worked with Northeast Earth since April, I've always found them to be extremely safety conscious. Additionally, they work hard to practice and instill safety awareness in their workers and subcontractors."
Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, OSHA's role is to promote safe and healthful working conditions for America's working men and women by setting and enforcing standards, and providing training, outreach and education.