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OSHA threatens two city-employed firms with six-figure fines

Wednesday, September 7, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

The United States Department of Labor has targeted two companies hired by the city of Austin with more than $121,000 in fines.

On Tuesday, the department announced that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has determined that Austin Constructors LLC and Muniz Concrete and Contracting Inc. have operated dangerous trenching protocols in downtown Austin.

Neither company responded to the Austin Monitor’s requests for comment on Tuesday.

OSHA’s Austin-area Director Casey Perkins issued the following statement: “There are roughly 54 fatalities associated with excavations each year, such as the one that happened in Lockhart this past week, because employers failed to take the necessary measures to keep them safe. These employers knew better, and they are fortunate we inspected them before any of their employees were seriously injured or killed.”

OSHA handed out four citations to Austin Constructors for the alleged violations. Three are characterized as “serious” while one is considered “willful.” OSHA defines a serious violation as one that “could cause an accident or illness that would most likely result in death or serious physical harm.” A willful violation occurs when “the employer either knowingly failed to comply with a legal requirement … or acted with plain indifference to employee safety.”

According to the willful violation citation, OSHA inspectors on April 28 found that four workers were shoveling and jackhammering in two different trenches on Colorado Street between West Seventh and West Eighth streets. Neither of the trenches were equipped with “an adequate protective system, exposing the employees to the hazard of being caught in a cave-in,” the document claims.

Austin Constructors incurred the serious violations for allegedly not covering utility lines in the trenches, exposing employees to loose rocks and soils, and for not providing safe walkways over the trenches.

The combined fines for those violations add up to $113,486.

Meanwhile, Muniz, the company in charge of the worksite, is facing a $7,857 levy for one violation considered by OSHA to be serious.

Both companies face three options for dealing with the proposed fines. Each has a 15-day deadline to decide whether to pay them in full. If they wish to challenge the findings, they may either request an informal conference with Perkins or contest the penalties before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

Both firms opted for the informal conference during their one and only previous run-in with OSHA inspectors in March 2015. Initially facing $7,000 in penalties over failing to provide adequate respiratory and general safety protections, Muniz ended up having to pay only $5,250.

In that same case, Austin Constructors negotiated its original $12,600 penalty to $9,000. It is unclear what project the firms were working on at the time.

In the most recent case, the companies were contracted by the city on its ongoing Colorado Street Reconstruction project. The Department of Public Works is spending $5.7 million from the 2012 transportation bond to upgrade sidewalks, surfacing and utility infrastructure on the three blocks of Colorado Street between West Seventh and West 10th streets. Once finished, Colorado Street will be converted to two-way operations from Lady Bird Lake to the Governor’s Mansion.

The work began last November and is expected to wrap in March 2017.

This is the second time in the span of a year that OSHA has announced fines for companies working on city projects. Last September, Colorado-based Hensel Phelps and its Austin-based subcontractor, CVI Development LLC, were hit with $88,000 in penalties for allegedly unsafe conditions at the Central Library site.

Online records indicate both firms are still contesting those fines.

City spokesman David Green told the Monitor that officials were still looking into OSHA’s claims on late Tuesday afternoon and declined to comment further pending the results of those efforts.

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