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EHS Today Asks OSHA Chief: What’s Up in Texas?

July 23, 2015
Everything’s bigger in Texas… including recent OSHA fines for safety violations.

Two recent OSHA investigations into Houston-area construction worksite incidents that resulted in serious injuries for employees led Assistant Secretary of Labor Dr. David Michaels to hold a press conference to comment on them.

“Texas has more fatalities in the construction industry than any other state,” Michaels noted. The two cases – one that involved a worker fall from height and one that involved a trench collapse – had some significant things in common, he added.

“In both cases, the employers knew what to do but didn’t do it and the workers paid the price for it,” said Michaels.

In one case, a temporary worker provided by Gardia Construction requested fall protection from Cotton Commercial USA, the employer on a Katy, Tex., jobsite. His request was denied and later, he fell 12 feet, breaking both of his arms and suffering contusions. Michaels noted that Cotton Commercial waited three days to report the incident to OSHA in violation of new reporting requirements and he said the egregious willful violations were issued because when OSHA investigators showed up at the site three days after the incident (because of the reporting delay), workers had been issued fall protection. That was an indication to OSHA that the employer knew that employees should have been wearing fall protection all along, said Michaels.

In that case, Gardia Construction did not have workers’ compensation insurance for its employees, prompting Michaels to say, “When staffing agencies choose not to provide workers with workers’ compensation insurance, they put those workers at extreme risk.”

In the second case, a worker for Hassell Construction was in an 8-foot-deep unsupported trench at a construction site in Richmond, Tex., when he became trapped when the trench began collapsing around him. His coworkers risked their own lives to dig him out with their bare hands.

Employers have known about trenching hazards for thousands of years, Michaels noted in a press release about the investigation. More recently, in 2000 at a Home Depot construction site in Richmond, Tex., three workers died when the 16-foot-deep utility trench they were working in collapsed. Emergency crews dug the men out by hand in that case as well. One of the men, Gerardo Vasquez, was found alive but later died at the hospital.

In the most recent case, “The employer [Hassell Construction] put the worker in terrible danger,” said Michaels.

When asked what was going on in Texas, Michaels answered, “Good question,” adding he didn’t know if the fact that the state does not require employers to have workers’ compensation insurance – the only state in the country that does not require it – is indicative of a problem with lax oversight of occupational safety and health in Texas or if other issues were at play. Michaels did say that no special emphasis programs were planned for the construction industry in Texas or the Houston area.

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