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The Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission issued a final decision Tuesday after an administrative law judge held that an underground utilities contractor would be required to pay a penalty of $36,000 for two violations, including one repeat, of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
In Secretary of Labor v. SJ Louis Construction of Texas Ltd., a division of SJ Louis Construction Inc., of Rockville, Minnesota, the ALJ determined that SJ Louis failed to construct a trench in Cypress, Texas, in compliance with OSHA regulations and failed to provide employees proper egress.
On March 3, 2016, a compliance safety and health officer noticed an open excavation and observed a foreman for SJ Louis looking down on two employees who were installing cathode wires to a water main that the company had previously installed as part of a larger project for the West Harris County Regional Water Authority. The compliance officer observed several violations of the trenching and excavation standards, including a lack of proper ingress/egress from the trench and a lack of compliant trench walls to provide protection against cave-ins, and issued a citation. SJ Louis contested the citation.
The compliance officer claimed that the company failed to provide an adequate ladder, stairway or ramp for workers to exit the 8-foot-deep trench, or an adequate system for protecting occupants of the trench. He also testified that he watched employees attempting to exit the trench by moving up a slope, stepping on a bench and then using their hands to push themselves up the remaining 3-foot wall.
The ALJ found that the employees “used multiple surfaces and means to climb out of the trench, none of which qualify, either individually or in tandem, as a ramp.”
The ALJ further determined that as a result of the “unsafe means to exit the trench,” employees could potentially have been exposed to slip and fall hazards as well as potential cave-in hazards, and found that SJ Louis had actual knowledge of the condition.
The ALJ also found that the trench did not contain an adequate slope to comply with OSHA standards, and thereby exposing employees to the hazard of cave-ins. The ALJ further held that this violation was a repeat citation, since SJ Louis had been cited in 2012 for exposing employees to cave-in hazards while working in a non-compliant trench. Although the trenches varied in depth, the court rejected SJ Louis’ contention that the difference with the trenches was “significant” to escape a repeat violation.
The ALJ, therefore, assessed a fine of $6,000 for the egress violation, and a fine of $30,000 for the repeat trench compliance violation.
SJ Louis did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
An administrative law judge of the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission issued a split decision in a case against a North Dakota contractor relating to alleged trenching violations.