Higher Job Safety Fines Rebuffed

Crofton Mother Keeps Fighting In Legislature

April 05, 1991|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,Staff writer

When Joan Para first heard her son had died, she asked three pointed questions.

Was he on the job as a plumber's assistant? Was he in an excavation trench? And was the hole reinforced?

The answers confirmed her worst nightmare.

Brian James Para, 21, had been laying sewer and water pipes to a home being built in Crofton Village when an unreinforced trench collapsed March 19. Buried alive, Para died from compression and suffocation.

"Immediately, she suspected what happened," said state Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski, D-Baltimore, for whom Joan Para works. "She had an idea what went wrong."

"He was a wonderful young man," said Para, a Crofton resident. "It's a terrible thing to know that your son might be alive if the law had been complied with. It's a bitter pill to swallow."

To ensure that her son didn't die in vain, Para and Miedusiewski are pushing lawmakers to establish more severe penalties for companies that violate the occupational safety code. "If the fines were higher, theymight think twice before sending someone else's son down into an unsafe hole," she said.

But time is short and the obstacles many.

The House of Delegates has approved a bill that would dramatically increase the fines that the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health office can levy. But the Senate Finance Committee rejected another version of the legislation last month and, so far, has refused to considerthe House bill.

Because the 90-day session ends Monday, Para and Miedusiewski have little time to change their minds.

"This tragedyhas brought the need closer to home, but we've apparently hit a snag," Miedusiewski said. "There are a few senators who are trying to siton it and let it go the way of the dodo bird."

Members of the Senate panel said this week that they are worried that the proposed civil penalties are too steep. And, they said, they saw no evidence during a hearing last month that the higher fines would increase safety.

The bill -- opposed by the building industry -- would increase the existing maximum $1,000 fine per violation to a minimum $5,000. It would raise the penalty for repeat offenders from $10,000 to $70,000.

"Do the higher fines make the workplace safer or are they a deterrent to business?" asked Finance member Michael J. Wagner, D-Glen Burnie. "There is such a thing as overkill."

Fearing the higher penalties could hurt industry unnecessarily, Chairman Thomas P. O'Reilly, D-Prince George's, said his panel plans to study the proposal over the summer.

The federal government -- which allows Maryland to enforceits own occupational safety laws -- increased the penalties levied in other states last fall. It ordered Maryland to do likewise or risk losing $3.5 million in federal aid used to operate the MOSH office.

"Everything we heard was that the federal government was raising its fines simply to raise revenues and that if we don't do it too, we'll jeopardize Maryland's own program," O'Reilly said.

The committeealso intends to write Maryland's congressional delegation right away, asking it to intercede to protect the federal aid.

Ileana O'Brien, state deputy commissioner of labor and industry, said the Senate committee apparently misunderstood her agency's support of the higher fines.

"That's why I think it's extremely important to get a full hearing" on the House bill, O'Brien said. "We believe the increase inpenalties is long overdue."

Four men have died in Anne Arundel County in the last three years when the walls of the trenches in which they were working collapsed, said Craig D. Lowry, state chief of occupational safety enforcement. Nine have died statewide since 1986. In each case, safeguards had not been followed.

Ninety-five percent of the trenches that Lowry's office inspects do not comply with state-mandated safeguards, he said.

A preliminary investigation into Brian Para's death shows the 12-foot-hole dug by Davidsonville plumbing firm did not have sloped sides or other required safeguards against collapse, Lowry said.

"That (Crofton cave-in) is only one of many cases where someone lost their life as a result of a hazard in the workplace," he said. "It's a shame people have to put their lives on theline to earn a dollar to support their families."

Lowry said theproblem lies at least in part with the size of penalties his office can levy. The maximum penalty, which was established in 1973, is $1,000. But, because law requires inspectors to consider the size of the firm and other economic factors, "We probably never could get the maximum," he said.

The average fine for life-threatening violations is $536.

But the cost of complying may be much greater to a company. Sloping the sides of a trench requires digging a larger hole, whichtakes longer and costs more. Also, because of space limitations, sloping is not always possible.

A trench shield, which shores up trench walls, is an alternative to sloping, but the device costs between $5,000 and $6,000, Lowry said.

"What message is being sent if the level of compliance is that low and the cost of compliance is that high?" he asked. "What does that say about the effectiveness of $536 asa deterrent?"

"To me any life is worth more than that," said Karen McAlpin, a Glen Burnie resident and Brian Para's girlfriend. "Killing this bill says you just don't care about people."

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