Construction worker Vidal Sanchez-Roman lost his life in a senseless construction accident in the spring of 2015. This week, the general contractor who was responsible for an alarming number of safety violations at the job site was hit with a measly $84,600 fine in connection with his death. The punishment – – or perhaps better framed as a ‘lack of accountability’ – – is particularly disturbing given the degree and nature of the safety violations.
The investigating agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), came out swinging against the general contractor J & M Metro, charging that “Mr. Sanchez’s death could have been prevented by J & M Metro.” Still, the agency is hamstrung by the amount of penalty they can levy, even for a company that accumulated 6 different safety violations during this investigation. This punishment fell short, woefully short.
Sanchez-Roman’s death. while tragic, is not particularly unusual. In short, a Latino worker was required to perform the most dangerous job on the site and was not afforded very basic safety protections. He was working on the 6th floor of a building in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn. He was raking freshly poured concrete near the unprotected edge of the building. He fell over the edge while doing his job and died later that day. The tragic accident received a small amount of attention and the New York construction boom surged onward. New York barely noticed.
St a minimum, the law requires the entities responsible for safety at a construction site, including the general contractor, to provide workers with a safe place to do their job. In this context, they are specifically required to provide fall protection for workers who labor at great heights. The principle is basic: protect the people who are most likely to be seriously injured or killed if something goes wrong. T
he particular violation in this tragedy is glaring. So glaring, in fact, that OSHA used the following language to describe the conduct of J & M Metro: they willfully failed to provide equipment to protect against falls. They also fail to provide any training for their workers in the area of fall protection.
“Willfully” is an important word. It suggests very strongly that they made a calculated decision in failing to provide this innocent victim with basic safety protections.
The manner in which this job was performed demonstrates that the specific people at this job site responsible for protecting workers were completely comfortable violating basic safety rules and exposing hard-working people to unnecessary perils. Sanchez-Roman, 51, was not provided a harness or any form of fall protection. In fact, there is no evidence that any of the workers who were required to work at an elevation were given fall protection devices. Compounding matters, there was no fencing or railing around the perimeter of the roof where the workers were laboring. Both were elementary jobsite safety requirements. Either of them, if properly implemented, would have saved this man’s life. Shame on the women and men who put this man in harm’s way for no good reason.
Our thoughts and prayers remain with the family and loved ones of Vidal Sanchez-Roman. His greatest sin was showing up with the intent to put in a hard-days work so he could to provide food and shelter for his family. This “accident” never should have happened.
But what of the $84,600 fine? Does this small sum of money, 6 months after this tragedy, in any way provide comfort to the family and friends of the victim? Does it afford them meaningful compensation? Is this amount of money enough to meaningfully impact the wrongdoer? Will it prevent other companies from electing to expose workers to horrific dangers? It says here, absolutely not. This is nothing more than a slap on the wrist that allows a company to continue with business as usual. Nobody’s suggesting that anyone at J & M Metro is happy about this fatal accident. What we are saying is that this fine will have no impact on their future behavior or on the conduct of other like-minded businesses. Their focus will remain on profit and not people and workers like Sanchez-Roman will continue to stare down dangers so they can feed their families.
This tragedy is why worker safety laws like New York’s Labor Law §240 remain the primary protection for injured workers and their families. This is the lone legal protection that will provide victims and their families with compensation for their injuries, medical bills and lost wages when they are victims of unsafe worksite. It is a law that insurance companies and wealthy developers, contractors and property owners continue to attack because it is the most effective way to hold them accountable when their failures seriously injure or kill a worker at a construction site.
Block O’Toole & Murphy is a team of lawyers committed to fighting for construction workers and their families. The firm has amassed nearly $900 million in verdicts and settlements for their clients. You may learn more about Block O’Toole & Murphy by reviewing their website at www.BlockOToole.com. Additionally you may contact them at any time for a free consultation at 212-736-5300