AR Contractor Fined for Confined Space Deaths
Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined a Texarkana, Arkansas, construction contracting company for two employee deaths in July.
Federal workplace safety investigators reportedly found that the contractor, Belt Construction Inc., failed to test oxygen levels in a confined space before the workers entered a sewer 20 feet below ground at a work site in Edmond, Oklahoma, dying due to a lack of oxygen.
About the Fine
Belt Construction is a family-owned company that provides tunneling, boring and concrete work as well as large diameter water and wastewater pipe construction for rehabilitation of municipalities' aging water and wastewater infrastructure in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas.
According to the OSHA release, the investigation into the June 14 incident uncovered that an employee of Belt Construction Inc. climbed into a newly installed sewer manhole to conduct testing when they lost consciousness. Trying to rescue the worker, a second employee followed into the manhole and lost consciousness.
Both workers later reportedly succumbed to their injuries.
OSHA investigators determined that the company had not completed required planning before allowing workers to enter the space, including testing for safety and finding out if ventilation was needed. Additionally, Belt Construction failed to provide rescue equipment and did not train workers on confined space entry procedures or obtain permits required by federal law.
“Two lives were lost – and family, friends and co-workers are left to grieve – because Belt Construction Inc. failed to follow legally required steps designed to prevent a needless incident like this from happening,” said OSHA Area Director Steven Kirby in Oklahoma City.
“Employers assigning people to work inside a confined space must comply with safety standards, including providing and ensuring the use of required safety equipment, and obtain all necessary permits before the job starts to avoid tragedy.”
OSHA has cited the company for six serious and two willful violations, resulting in $287,150 in penalties. Belt Construction has 15 business days from receipt of its citations and penalties to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA's area director, or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.
According to OSHA, in July 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that from 2011 to 2018, 1,020 workers died in confined space incidents. Of those deaths, 61 were in sewers, manholes and storm drains.
A recent article from the Journal of Protective Coatings and Linings outlined common safety hazards on industrial painting jobs, including confined spaces.
“Today, safety is a major concern in the daily lives of those in the construction and coatings industries. It doesn’t matter whether you’re working on a new structure, abating lead paint on an old bridge, relining a tank or repowering an old ship—safety is important,” wrote the author.
“Most workers have received training and orientations to alert them to the dangers of their jobs and how to deal with those dangers, but has the constant drone of ‘safety, safety, safety’ numbed you to the common dangers around you every day?”
Despite efforts made by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration to better protect the construction industry’s workforce, recent reports have indicated that death rates for the sector have remained unchanged for 10 years.
While the industry has witnessed an uptick in employment, growing 31% over the decade, between 2011 and 2020, 10 out of every 100,000 workers died from an onsite accident. The numbers, according to reports, are believed to be mostly associated with the ongoing opioid epidemic and relaxed safety environments.
In an investigation by Bloomberg Law last year, reporters found that between fiscal years 2018 and 2020, employers across all industries skirted $100 million in fines—meaning that one in five employers never paid OSHA.
The issue has inspired states to create their own construction safety bills. In July, New York state legislature recently passed a new construction bill that seeks to heavily increase fines for criminal charges associated with jobsite deaths.
According to OSHA, 29 states and territories currently have their own OSHA programs designed to enforce safety standards. Some are equally, or even more strict, as compared to federal rules—though seven of those plans cover only state and local government workers.
Regardless of efforts made by local, state or federal governments, Greg Sizemore, Vice President of Health Safety, Environment, and Workforce Development at Associated Builders and Contractors, believes that any lack of improvement could be because the responsibility stops at the worker and seems to fail ranking up through entire organizations.
Because of that, mixed with understaffing and smaller companies that could go under the radar, OSHA will always struggle to catch everyone and hold them all accountable for their actions.
Recent OSHA Citation
In October, OSHA cited a metal coatings company for 21 violations at its New Jersey manufacturing site. The citations are the result of an investigation opened on April 18, 2022, in response to a complaint.
Regal Industrial Corp. was founded in 1974 in Donora, Pennsylvania. The company reportedly provides abrasive blasting, metallizing and coating applications for steel and concrete structures such as bridges, marine structures, piping and railings.
While headquartered in Pennsylvania, OSHA alleges that the same comprehensive safety and health programs at its corporate headquarters were not extended to its Millville, New Jersey, facility. The manufacturing facility opened in the fall of 2021.
According to the OSHA News Release, the company failed to:
As a result, OSHA has cited the company for five willful, 15 serious and one other-than-serious violations. Additionally, the Administration has proposed $573,681 in penalties.
The willful citations relate to the respirator, written hazard communication program, safety data sheet, fall protection and chemical hazard violations, and the serious and other-than-serious citations address the remaining safety violations.