May 30, 2018

NAPLES — The contractor fined for workplace safety violations in the deaths of three workers last year on a Monroe County road and drainage project in Key Largo has been found culpable for another workplace death.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Douglas N. Higgins Inc., a South Florida utility company, after 26-year-old employee Hector Manuel Velez-Arriaga suffered fatal injuries at a Naples worksite on Nov. 17, 2017. The company faces $162,596 in proposed penalties, which is the maximum allowed, according to an OSHA statement released last week.

“The agency cited the company for a similar violation in January 2017 after three employees succumbed to toxic gases while working in a manhole,” OSHA wrote in its May 22 press release.

OSHA issued $119,507 in fines to D.N. Higgins after it concluded last year that a lack of safety procedures contributed to the deaths of the three workers on a stormwater drain project in Key Largo.

Included in the latest citation is a proposed $20,326 fine for “repeated failure to provide specific excavation requirements.”

Velez-Arriaga died after a steel plate fell on him while he was connecting sewer lines in a 10-foot deep trench. An excavator operator who was holding the trench box plate up with a steel chain pulled forward not realizing Velez-Arriaga was still in the trench, which caused the plate to fall, according to OSHA. 

The operator does not have a valid driver’s license, according to the report. The Collier County Sheriff’s Office has not brought forward any criminal charges in the case.

OSHA cited the company for permitting employees to work in a trench without adequate cave-in protection, failing to provide safe entry and exit from a trench, failing to perform atmospheric testing and train employees on signals used when moving trench boxes, and allowing employees to use defective equipment to hoist a compactor.

“Employers have a responsibility to ensure a working environment free from recognized hazards,” said Condell Eastmond, OSHA’s Fort Lauderdale area office director. “This company’s continued failure to protect and train their employees on well-known hazards resulted in another preventable tragedy.”

Douglas N. Higgins Inc. has about two weeks to comply or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

tjava@keysnews.com