State Raps Safety At Cave-in Site

No Supports Are Evident In Trench Where Man Died

March 22, 1991|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Staff writer

The state's chief occupational safety officer says a preliminary investigation shows the Crofton excavation site that collapsed Tuesday, crushing a worker to death, was improperly reinforced.

Craig D. Lowry, chief of compliance for the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health office, said yesterday that the 12-foot-deep hole dug by a plumbing firm did not have sloped sides and apparently lacked anything to hold back the dirt.

"The investigation is focusing on these things," Lowry said. "There is evidence that none of these things were provided. That's why the man succumbed to death."

Lowry said the investigation could take30 days. Brian James Para, 21, of the 1700 block of Reading Street, Crofton, was buried alive while laying a sewer line to a new home being built in Crofton Village.

The accident was the county's fourth fatal construction site cave-in since 1988.

Police say Para was supposed to be working in a trench leading to the house in the 2300 block of Putnam Lane, but for an unknown reason, he walked to the hole, which then collapsed. Nearby workers tried to pull Para out, but wereunsuccessful.

The State Medical Examiner's Office, which completed an autopsy yesterday, said Para died from a combination of compression and suffocation.

Para was working for Razzano and Fohner Inc.,a Davidsonville plumbing firm. Company officials could not be reached for comment yesterday.

The housing development, consisting of more than 100 single-family homes, is being built by the Richards Groupof Washington, a Virginia-based general contracting firm.

Lowry said Razzano and Fohner is responsible for maintaining safety at the site. He said MOSH could clear the company of wrongdoing, issue citations, levy fines or recommend the State's Attorney's Office file criminal charges.

The maximum fine is $1,000 for a company found in violation of state law that resulted in death. If MOSH finds the companywillfully disregarded the law, the maximum fine is $10,000. The agency can then recommend that the State's Attorney's Office file criminal charges, which carry a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $10,000 fine.

Lowry said that Razzano and Fohner and the Richards Group of Washington have clean records with MOSH.

A bill to increase the severity of fines MOSH can hand out was defeated by a state legislative committee this year and will undergo further study.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced in October that it would increase its maximum fines sevenfold -- to $7,000 for "serious" violations and $70,000 for "willful" violations.

As one of two dozen states with its own job safety program, Maryland was told by OSHA to follow suit or risk losing federal certification and about $2.7 million in annual federal money.

Lowry has said the increase in fines would help reduce the number of job safety violations. He said yesterday that his agency has a team of 35 investigators who are responsible for enforcing regulations throughout the state. "It is not practical to assume we can inspect every one of these sites throughout the year," Lowry said.

He said in the 1980s, the state averaged eight cave-in fatalities annually, but better enforcement and educational programs have reduced those numbers.

In addition to Tuesday's accident, the county has had the following fatal construction cave-ins since 1988:

* March 8, 1990, Glen A. Fahy, of Prince George's County, was killed when dirt from a retaining wall collapsed on him as he was working on Defense Highway in Annapolis.

* May 5, 1989, Larry Dring Sr., 43, of Pasadena, was killed while doing plumbingwork in a trench in Brooklyn Park.

* Spring 1988, a worker installing plumbing pipes was killed while laying a water line to the Western District Police Station in Odenton.

Lowry would not comment on statements made by Bill Bernhardt, project manager for the Richards Group, who told a reporter Tuesday that Para "was not authorized" to go into the hole, which was not completely dug.

But Steve Huffines,a Glen Burnie attorney who represented the family of the man killed at the 1988 cave-in, said construction officials always say that to try and deflect blame.

Huffines said laws governing lawsuit awards need to be changed. Now, he said, family members are prohibited from seeking punitive damages for pain and suffering in cases of industrial accidents if the employee is covered by workman's compensation.

Huffines said that in his case -- which was settled out of court lastyear -- he was barred from suing the county-hired plumbing firm, andinstead had to target the private inspection company he charged withfailing to recognize the dangerous situation.

He said that if thedeceased had no dependents, the company only has to pay for the funeral and other related medical expenses. If there are dependents, the company has to pay the employee's average weekly earnings up to $50,000.

"It is almost a license to kill," he said. "The employer, unless he physically pushes a kid in the hole, is off the hook."

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