How is it that a construction firm that specializes in underground utility work and excavation can be so dense when it comes to knowing the fundamentals of protecting workers from cave-ins? Or is it that they know the fundamentals but just choose not to apply them.
The Houston-area excavation firm SER Construction Partners was cited last month by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for willfully failing to comply with standards for safe excavation practices. The OSHA news release announcing the sanction appropriately, noting:
"A cave-in can turn into a grave in a matter of seconds. Failing to protect workers from cave-ins is simply unacceptable."
What's really appalling is that it's not the first time this company has been caught breaking federal worker safety rules for excavation and trenching (i.e., 29 CFR 1926.651 and 29 CFR 1926.652.) For these rules alone, the firm received citations from OSHA in:
- September 2009 for a SERIOUS violation (and paid a penalty of $765)
- September 2010 for a REPEAT and a SERIOUS violation (and paid a penalty of $8,000)
- December 2010 for a REPEAT violation (and paid a penalty of $5,300) and
- November 2012 for a REPEAT violation (and paid a penalty of $25,987)
The most recent OSHA citation explains:
"an employee was exposed to cave-in hazards while working in an excavation without an adequate protective system"
which would simply entail proper sloping, shoring or shielding of the underground area. The penalty proposed by OSHA is $70,000.
Since 2008, SER Construction Partners has also received citations from OSHA for other worker safety violations. And it gets worse. OSHA has also conducted inspections of this company's worksites following serious injuries that led to worker deaths. One of those incidents occurred in October 2007 and another in April 2011. After all this, I wonder if another sort of sanction---one that really hits their pocketbook----would force this company to drastically change their operations.
SER Construction Partners receives millions of dollars of revenue from local government contracts. In just the last 10 months, under contracts for public works projects, the firm has received nearly $20 million in revenue from the City of Houston. Repeat, $20 million in just the last 10 months from just the City of Houston.
A company brochure lists a slew of other Texas municipalities---from Laredo, League City and Pasadena, to Sugar Land and Corpus Christi----which are current or former clients of SER Construction Partners. What if these government contracts dried up, or were made void based on SER's poor safety performance? Maybe that's the incentive needed for a firm like this to stop gambling with workers' lives in a cave-in.
Last month, Maryland lawmakers introduced a bill in the State legislature to do something just like this. If adopted, the law would require the State's Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation to establish a safety rating system and safety questionnaire to qualify firms to bid on a State public works project. The rating system would include a variety of factors, including the company's history of:
- citations and penalties issued by occupational safety and health agencies
- stop work orders
- workers' compensation experience modification rates
As well as the firm's methods for:
- involving on-site employees in the identification hazards and solutions to address them
- communicating safety information and training employees
- protecting whistleblowers
- evaluating subcontractors' safety performance
- and more.
A firm that provides false information to this safety rating system would be prohibited, for up to 3 years, from qualifying to bid on a State public works project.
The sponsors of this Maryland legislation see that it's no longer enough for government contracts to simply say "Contractor shall comply with all federal and state safety rules and regulations." If adopted, firms will need to demonstrate in multiple ways their high-bar safety performance and compete against other firms with strong safety management systems.
SER Construction Partners has a history of repeatedly violating federal safety standards designed to protect workers from excavation cave-ins. Prequalifying based on safety performance may not be on the books in Houston or other Texas municipalities, but this most recent OSHA citation against SER Construction Partners should set off some red flags for government officials who make decisions about public works contractors.