Companies Fight Charges They Violated Safety Standards

The L.E. Myers Co., a Rolling Meadows, Ill., electrical construction contractor, and its parent company, holding company MYR Group Inc., vow to defend themselves against federal charges they willfully violated workplace safety regulations.

Those violations allegedly contributed to the deaths of two employees in two separate incidents in the Chicago area in 1999 and 2000.

The companies were charged in a four-count indictment returned late Tuesday by a federal grand jury. The indictment alleges that Myers and MYR willfully violated numerous federal workplace regulations in the deaths of an apprentice lineman and a journeyman lineman who were working on high-voltage transmission towers each carrying three phase lines energized at 345,000 volts in Mount Prospect in 1999 and in Plainfield in 2000. The regulations are designed to protect employees who maintain and repair high-voltage transmission lines and equipment. Myers worked under contract with Commonwealth Edison Co. to repair lines and equipment on electrical transmission towers located in northern Illinois during those years. Myers and MYR each face two counts of violating OSHA safety regulations; one count stemming from each death.

OSHA issued one serious and six willful violations against the company following an investigation of the electrocution of employee Wade Cumpston, who died on March 25, 2000 after contacting an energized grounding cable while working from an uninsulated bucket at a tower located in Plainfield. The violations carry proposed penalties of $423,500.

In the other case contested by the company, employee Blake Lane was electrocuted on Dec. 28, 1999 when he contacted an energized wire that he was inspecting on a steel tower located in Mt. Prospect. In the investigation of that incident, OSHA issued two serious and three willful violations, carrying proposed penalties of $220,000.

Myers and MYR say they object to charges that imply the accidents were caused by "willful" acts on their part. The definition of a willful violation is one "committed with an intentional disregard of, or plain indifference to, the requirements of the Occupational Safety and Health Act and OSHA regulations."

"We deeply regret these tragic accidents," said William Skibitsky, president of The L.E. Myers Co. "We understand OSHA's role in helping to maintain a safe work environment and we support its efforts. We cooperated fully with its investigations. However, we believe that the court will find the facts of the case do not support OSHA's position."

OSHA disagrees. In a press release published on Sept. 25, 2000, when the agency issued its inspection report following the March 25, 2000 incident, the agency noted, "Since 1972, 37 workers have been killed on L.E. Myers jobs, including 15 who were electrocuted. L.E. Myers has 1,500 employees nationwide; no other company its size in its industry has as many fatalities."

The company racked up additional fatalities, injuries and citations since that press release was issued. This year, OSHA cited the company on Sept. 27, 2002, because a Myers crew was spotted performing electrical work without proper grounding at a Sarasota, Fla, job site. An OSHA inspection of the worksite resulted in an agreement committing the company to safety improvements at job sites in Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Most recently, OSHA cited Myers on Oct. 3, 2002 in Tennessee for improperly grounded power lines that contributed to the electrocution death of an employee at TVA's Crossville Substation. The inspection of the fatality led to a settlement in which Myers agreed to pay $105,000 in penalties and committed to safety improvements at job sites throughout the southeast.

A quick search through inspection data on OSHA's Web site reveals the company has been inspected by the agency 91 times since 1972, and many of those inspections were prompted by accidents and many of the citations received were characterized as "willful."

"It is our intention [these] charges will remind employers of the extraordinary responsibility our nation places on them to insure the safety of their workers," said Patrick J. Fitzgerald, United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, said yesterday when announcing the indictments. "And while we recognize that no prosecution of a corporation can come close to undoing the immeasurable damage done to the families of the victims in this case, we believe that what we do here today communicates strongly to the corporate community that wilful disregard of federal safety laws will have the most serious possible consequences the law permits."

U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao, issued the following statement: "While we continue our efforts to assist employers in complying with OSHA's regulations, we will not hesitate to use the full range of enforcement tools, including referral of what we believe to be criminal conduct to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution. Compliance with our regulations by this firm would have save lives."

According to the indictment, the defendants willfully violated the following requirements:

  • Employees must be trained and briefed on safety issues and potential hazards before beginning a job;
  • Only qualified workers are permitted to work in areas containing unguarded, uninsulated energized lines or parts of equipment;
  • Employers must determine existing conditions relating to the safety of the work to be performed, such as the nominal voltage of line and the presence of protective grounds, before beginning a job; and
  • Employers must insure that their employees maintain a minimum safe distance from energized lines and that temporary grounds be placed to protect employees from exposure to hazardous differences in electrical potential.

Under the OSHA statute, the charges are misdemeanors. If convicted, Myers and MYR each face a maximum penalty of five years' probation and a maximum fine of $1 million, or $500,000 on each of the two counts of the indictment.

An indictment contains only charges and is not evidence of guilt.

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