August 9, 2017

KEY LARGO — Just days after the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration slapped county contractor D.N. Higgins and a related company, McKenna Contracting, with $119,507 in safety violations surrounding the deaths of three road workers in Key Largo, another complaint was filed against the company.

The report was released July 18, and by the end of that week, another complaint was filed in Monroe County against D.N. Higgins in reference to “trench safety.” The company now has two complaints pending.

Higgins was awarded $1,502,810.78 in contracts by Monroe County for the Lake Surprise Roadway and Drainage Improvements Project.

OSHA attributed the Jan. 16 deaths of 34-year-old Elway Gray, 49-year-old Louis O’Keefe and 24-year-old Robert Wilson on safety failures by the two companies during the Monroe County road and stormwater drainage project. The men died after descending into a poison gas-filled manhole to inspect a dip in the pavement.

Two other employees and a volunteer firefighter were also exposed to the toxic gases in the manhole during rescue attempts but survived.

“D.N. Higgins has responded to the citations issued in July. The parties have held an informal conference with no outcome just yet,” said Mike D’Aquino, OSHA spokesman.

According to OSHA’s website, “Either the employer or the OSHA assistant regional director may hold an informal conference for the purpose of discussing any issues raised by an inspection, citation, notice of proposed penalty, or notice of intention to contest.”

The informal conference must be completed by, on or before the 15-day time period from the time the citations were delivered to the employer. The 15-working day benchmark from July 18 was Tuesday, Aug. 8, after the Free Press deadline.

OSHA’s Eric Lucero said an informal conference doesn’t necessarily mean the citations are being contested.

“If contested, they have to go before a commission, and when that happens, OSHA is completely out of it,” Lucero said. “They can come to the table, and at that time they can discuss abatement on each of the citations. Sometimes, the item has already been corrected. It’s unclear at this time what they are going to come back with.”

Higgins’ lawyer, Steve W. Cornman of Kubicki Draper in Miami, declined to comment about the citations, the informal conference or the newly added complaint. 

The OSHA report faulted D.N. Higgins and McKenna for not having permits to enter confined spaces and not having safety protocols in place regarding dangerous chemicals and gases.

The investigation also found that the employees were not effectively trained to work with chemicals and gases, such as the ones that claimed their lives, nor did the companies perform any testing of gas levels inside the manhole that day. Also, the companies didn’t supply gas-measuring devices to its workers.

According to the report, the companies failed to ventilate the stormwater drain before the employees descended inside. They also didn’t provide the necessary emergency exit equipment, guard the manhole or use traffic barriers.

In March 2015, an OSHA inspection of a D.N. Higgins trench project in Key West resulted in two citations for lack of safety gear. Both fines were settled for $1,920.

tjava@keysnews.com