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updated: 4/4/2013 4:56 PM

OSHA: Elk Grove sewer and water contractor endangered workers

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Daily Herald report

An Elk Grove Village-based sewer and water contractor is facing more than $110,000 in fines from federal authorities who say the company committed seven safety violations -- three of them willfully -- that exposed workers to harm.

The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration said Thursday it's cited Mike Neri Sewer & Water Contractor Inc. for failing to protect workers during trenching operations from cave-ins, moving soil and chunks of asphalt.

The violations are the result of an investigation initiated after an OSHA inspector witnessed apparent cave-in hazards Oct. 3 while traveling past a construction site in Des Plaines, authorities said in a news release.

"This is not the first time this contractor has exposed vulnerable workers to dangerous excavation hazards," Nick Walters, OSHA's regional administrator in Chicago, said in the release. "These types of hazards result in numerous fatalities and injuries every year. No job should cost a worker's life due to an employer's failure to properly protect and train workers."

A message seeking comment left at the company's listed phone number was not returned Thursday. The company has 15 business days from receipt of the citations to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA's area director, or contest the citations and penalties before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

According to OSHA, the three willful violations involve failing to provide cave-in protection to workers installing protective metal sleeves around an existing water main in a trench approximately 7 feet deep, and at a later date during an extension of another trench approximately 6 feet deep. The company failed to ensure that excavated materials that posed a hazard of falling or rolling into the trench were placed at least 2 feet back from the trench edge.

A willful violation is one committed with intentional, knowing or voluntary disregard for the law's requirements, or with plain indifference to worker safety and health, the agency said.

"Mike Neri Sewer & Water Contractor has again failed to take adequate safety measures to protect workers from cave-ins at excavation sites despite being previously cited for these industry specific standards," Diane Turek, OSHA's area director for its Chicago North Area Office in Des Plaines, said in the news release. "OSHA implemented a trenching and excavation special emphasis program in the 1980s, so the industry, including Neri, who has been in this business for decades, should be well aware of the safety regulations for trenching operations and the potential hazards to workers."

One serious violation was cited for failing to protect workers in a trench from water accumulation, the OSHA release states. A serious violation occurs when there is substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known, according to the agency.

OSHA issued three repeat violations to Neri for failing to establish a safety and health program, failing to provide training to workers on trenching and excavation hazards and failing to ensure that each worker exposed to struck-by hazards was protected by a helmet, the agency stated.

A repeat violation exists when an employer previously has been cited for the same or a similar violation of a standard, regulation, rule or order within the last five years. Similar violations were cited at a job site in southwest suburban Montgomery in 2009, according to OSHA.

Because of the hazards and the violations cited, Mike Neri Sewer & Water Contractor has been placed in OSHA's Severe Violator Enforcement Program, which mandates targeted follow-up inspections to ensure compliance with the law. The program focuses on employers that endanger workers by committing willful, repeat, or failure-to-abate violations, according to the agency. Under the program, OSHA may inspect any of the employer's facilities or job sites.

Prior to this inspection, Mike Neri Sewer & Water Contractor had been inspected by OSHA three times in the past five years and had been issued serious, repeat and willful citations related to various trenching hazards, the agency said.

The current citations can be viewed at http://www.osha.gov/ooc/citations/MikeNeriSewerandWaterContractor_666698_0402_13.pdf.

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