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Fines Doubled in Tower Death Case

Friday, June 3, 2016

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A New York painting contractor now faces $91,000 in fines in relation to a worker’s electrocution death on an electrical tower job in 2012, a judge has ruled.

Tower Maintenance Corp., of Sea Cliff, NY, challenged the initial $35,000 fines levied in relation to the case in 2013 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

But on Tuesday (May 31), OSHA announced that a judge from the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission ruled against the firm, more than doubling the total fines. The company told PaintSquare News it plans to appeal.

Electrical towers
© iStock.com / sunyaluk

On the day the worker fell to his death, the job involved painting the tower bodies of steel electric transmission towers.

On Oct. 25, 2012, a worker on a Tower Maintenance crew was shocked while painting an electrical tower in Edison, NJ, on a contract with Public Service Electric & Gas Company (PSE&G).

That worker was killed by electrocution and fell 70 feet, in the process knocking another worker from the tower. The second worker sustained injuries from his 40-foot fall. Neither worker was identified by authorities.

Initial OSHA Violations

In April 2013, OSHA issued one “serious” and two “repeat” violations to Tower Maintenance, alleging that the firm failed to properly train and protect workers on the site that day.

OSHA later amended one of the “repeat” violations—one alleging that the company did not supply proper fall protection to the painters—to a “willful” violation, raising the fine for that count from $14,000 to $46,200. That brought the total fines to $67,200.

Because Tower contested the violations, the case went to the OSHRC to be considered by an administrative law judge. OSHRC is the independent federal agency that reviews cases related to OSHA inspections and citations.

Unqualified Workers

The decision handed down May 16 by the OSHRC asserts that crew members who were part of the job on Oct. 25, weren’t qualified to be doing the work the job required.

According to the decision, OSHA rules state that only “qualified” workers may come within 10 feet of energized lines, and likewise only “qualified” individuals can work more than four feet off the ground without fall protection.

Fall prevention harness hardware
© iStock.com / Mihalec

One violation, alleging that the company did not supply proper fall protection to the painters, is classified as "willful."

The job that day involved painting the tower bodies of steel electric transmission towers. Painters wore painting mitts, dipping them in the paint then applying it to the tower by hand. The incident occurred on the third full day of the job, which included painting 214 tower bodies.

In the decision, Judge Carol A. Baumerich described a job site with communication problems; many of the workers spoke little to no English, and many of the supervisors spoke little Portuguese, the language of the workers.

The judge calls into question Tower’s safety statement as well. “It was not provided to or posted for the painters to see,” she writes in the decision. “Foreman Mackeivicz had never seen it. Supervisor Psareas, the safety supervisor, did not follow it—he left the worksite, which was against the Respondent’s safety policy, to make a telephone call and was not on the worksite when the accident occurred.”

Repeat Violation

In the decision, the judge also cites an incident in October 2010, in Macungie, PA, in which another Tower Maintenance worker fell to his death.

In the case at hand, Tower argued that the two incidents were not the same, and so the second could not be considered a “repeat” violation.

OSHA

This week, OSHA announced that a judge from the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission ruled against the firm, more than doubling its total fines.

“Both Tower Maintenance worksites—Macungie and Edison—revealed the noncompliant use of step-bolts as anchor points when working at heights, which resulted in a fall hazard,” the judge writes in the decision, thus upholding the “repeat” nature of the violation.

Workers Were Concerned

Judge Baumerich’s decision says that painters on the job site in Edison testified that they expressed concerns about safety.

“Painters reported that if they got too close to the power lines the hair on their skin would stand up,” she writes. “All of the painters in this case testified that they had concerns about their [personal fall arrest system] device operating correctly and frequently brought concerns regarding their PFAS device to the attention” of the site supervisor and foreman.

The count involving insufficient fall protection is the count that OSHA amended to a “willful” violation with an increased fine of $46,200. During the contestation, the agency requested that the penalty be increased again, to the maximum possible, $70,000. Judge Baumerich agreed, bringing the total fines to $91,000.

"Tower Maintenance's negligence contributed directly to this preventable tragedy. The company routinely exposed workers to falls and electrical dangers without the proper fall protection and training, despite the fact a similar fatality occurred less than two years prior," said Robert Kulick, administrator of OSHA's New York Region. "The judge's decision sends an important message to employers: OSHA will hold companies that fail to protect employees accountable."

Tower Maintenance owner Elizabeth Vlahopolous told PaintSquare News through a company representative Thursday (June 2) that the company plans to appeal the decision. A call to Tower's attorney in the case was not immediately returned.

About Tower Maintenance

Tower Maintenance is owned by Vlahopolous; her husband, Peter Vlahopolous, is the project manager/supervisor. According to case documents, the company was formed in 2008. Both had previously worked for a company called Tower Painting, of which Peter Vlahopolous was vice president.

Tower Painting, headquartered in Westbury, NY, was cited in March 2007 for violations related to insufficient fall protection for workers. It faced 15 “serious” and three “willful” violations, for a total of $85,200 in fines.

Tower Maintenance says on its website that “employees receive OSHA 10 and special SAFETY TRAINING” (emphasis from the original). The company’s website says it specializes in commercial and industrial services within the construction industry. It lists certifications and approvals from numerous utilities, including New York state and New York City’s departments of transporation, Con Edison and PSE&G.

   

Tagged categories: Enforcement; Fall protection; Fatalities; Laws and litigation; OSHA; Safety; Transmission Towers; Violations

Comment from Thomas Van Hooser, (6/3/2016, 8:28 AM)

Events such as this will continue until management adopt strong and viable safety culture incorporating training, risk assessments, auditing, counseling, competency of personnel and accountability. There will be little change, if any, if management does not take the necessary and appropriate action to eliminate accidents.


Comment from peter gibson, (6/4/2016, 1:15 PM)

Thats right..the rot starts at the top and percolates down. If the boss don't care; we don't care.


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