One Worker Dead and Another Injured Is Worth a $63,000 Citation, OSHA says

How much is a death on the job worth to the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration? It's valued at precisely $63,000, judging by the citation issued by OSHA to the Municipal District Services LLC in Cypress, Texas.

In December 2013, company workers were trying to repair a water main. The company excavated a trench through a concrete road that was 16 feet long, 5 feet wide and 8 to 10 feet deep. A pair of workers entered the unprotected trench to clean up and cut a broken pipe, according to a release issued by OSHA. After five to 10 minutes inside the trench, the south wall of the excavation caved in.

"Excavation and trenching are among the most hazardous construction operations, but they can be performed in a safe manner by using proper safety equipment, such as trench boxes, consistently," said David Doucet, OSHA's area director in the Houston North Office.

Translation: This thing could have been done safely, but it wasn't and one worker was inured and the other was killed.

A willful violation, with a penalty of $63,000, was cited for failing to provide cave-in protection for workers in a trench or excavation. A willful violation is one committed with intentional, knowing or voluntary disregard for the law's requirements, or with plain indifference to worker safety and health.

This seems - and is - a piddling amount for a willful violation that cost a man his life, but OSHA can only fine up to $70,000 for a willful violation. As a relatively powerless regulatory agency - they can inspect stuff and issue fines and that's about it - a relatively fat fine is one of the few ways the agency has to make it clear this was a screw-up that really got the agency's attention. There's no risk of criminal charges with the fine from OSHA, so the people running Municipal District Services, a waste-water treatment and water construction services company, won't face any other backlash once someone gets around to writing a check.

Writing a check will most likely be the legal end of it, since Texas law leans in favor of the employer on these matters. (Shocking, we know.) If the employee who survived collects workman's comp, Texas law prohibits the employee from suing the company. However, all bets are off if an employee was killed on the job. Employees can't collect workers comp and sue, but their families still can.

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