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By Chris Marr
The deaths of three Florida utility workers from lethal gas exposure resulted in federal safety citations and proposed fines of $119,507 for their employer.
Douglas N. Higgins Inc. and a related company McKenna Contracting LLC, which do business under the name D.N. Higgins Inc., were cited for 10 serious safety violations, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced July 18.
The citations stem from a Jan. 16 incident at a job site in Key Largo, Fla. The company was performing underground utility work when a pipe laying worker, Elway Gray, entered a manhole and became unresponsive. Two coworkers—laborer Louis O’Keefe and equipment operator Robert Wilson—entered the hole to assist him, but all three men died.
Two other employees and a volunteer firefighter also were injured while attempting to rescue the men. Later air testing inside the hole showed hydrogen sulfide and carbon monoxide were present at lethal levels, according to OSHA’s summary of the incident.
OSHA cited the company for allegedly failing to test for toxic gases, identify potential hazards, and purge or ventilate the confined space before letting workers enter. The agency also cited D.N. Higgins for allegedly failing to provide monitoring equipment, emergency and rescue equipment, and adequate training for employees.
“The hazards of working in manholes are well established, but there are ways to make it safe,” said Condell Eastmond, the OSHA area director in Fort Lauderdale, in the agency’s news release. “Three employees needlessly lost their lives and others were injured due to their employer’s failure to follow safe work practices.”
A company representative at D.N. Higgins was out of town and unavailable for comment, and an attorney reportedly representing the company didn’t immediately respond to Bloomberg BNA’s request on July 19.
The family of at least one of the deceased workers is planning a wrongful death lawsuit against D.N. Higgins, according to attorney Marc P. Lyons of Lyons, Snyder & Collin P.A. in Plantation, Fla.
Lyons is representing the family of Robert Wilson and plans to file suit soon, as the firm has recently completed its investigation and was waiting for the final OSHA report, he said.
“The OSHA report is not a surprise to anybody,” Lyons told Bloomberg BNA on July 19. The company “completely, totally and absolutely dropped the ball with regard to safety requirements.”
Florida’s workers compensation law complicates the case against D.N. Higgins and could result in a cap on damages, he said. He added that he plans to argue for an exception to the workers comp limits on grounds that the company’s safety violations were intentional.
Lyons said he also intends to pursue the subcontractor, McKenna Contracting, as a second defendant that likely wouldn’t be shielded by the workers compensation law.
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