On September 12, 2018, Luis Sanchez Almonte was tragically killed in a wall collapse while working in a trench at Sunset Park, Brooklyn. That tragedy was compounded, however, amid reports that the proposed fine for Almonte’s death is a mere $63,647, even though the subcontractor on the site willfully ignored a cave-in warning issued shortly before the collapse occurred, and had a long history of unethical behavior including a bribery charge in 2015.
Red Flags Raised, But No Action Taken
The subcontractor on the site, WSC Group LLC, has been issued two citations by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for their role in Almonte’s death. The first is being issued because the excavation site was found to have an inadequate protective system which was “not compliant with federal safety regulations.”
The second citation, which is much more damning, is being issued because it was found that “a cave-in warning was ignored” shortly before the collapse occurred, and that even though the warning was given to somebody with the power to correct the hazard, no action was taken to protect the employees working and risking their lives in the trench.
Disturbingly, this was not the first time the job site had been flagged by OSHA for violating safety regulations. In June 2018, just three months before Almonte was killed, WSC Group LLC received a citation for leaving a live electrical panel exposed on the site. In that case, the proposed fine was $3,696.
The concentration of violations at this jobsite raises serious questions about the competency and ethics of WSC Group LLC, and the person whom the violation is addressed to, a man named Jiaxi “Jimmy” Liu. Liu was charged with bribery in 2015 after prosecutors alleged that Liu and two DOB inspectors created a fake stop-work order for a construction project in Coney Island, and then extorted payment from the property owner to have the fake order lifted. Liu ultimately pled guilty to third-degree attempted bribery and was sentenced to 38 days of community service and a $5,000 fine.
Liu’s checkered history is troubling. Another one of his companies, WS Construction Inc, is currently being sued by a homeowner in Cobble Hill stemming from an incident in 2017. The homeowner claims that he incurred over $1,000,000 in property damage due to faulty excavation work at the property next to him, allegations which WS Construction denies.
In an ominous sequence of events that mirrors the circumstances which led to Almonte’s death, the site involved in the 2017 Cobble Hill lawsuit received three OSHA electrical safety violations in 2014, an early warning sign that something was seriously amiss.
Given the disturbing history of misconduct in Liu’s past, and the revelation that the subcontractor willfully ignored warnings of a potential cave in just before the deadly collapse occurred, the proposed $63,647 fine is an insult not just to the memory of Luis Sanchez Almonte, but also to all of the other workers who WSC knowingly put in harm’s way with their wanton disregard for worker safety.
Money Talks, But What Message Is Being Sent?
In the latest construction fatality report issued by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety & Health (NYCOSH), numerous recommendations were given to put a stop to construction fatalities in New York. Chief among these recommendations was the dire need to increase the fines against bad-actor construction companies whose negligence results in the injury or death of a worker.
In this case, the $63,647 fine is actually nearly three times higher than the average fine given out by OSHA for a New York construction fatality in 2017. But ask yourself: if a construction company is already making millions, and has demonstrated a willingness to cut corners on worker safety, would such a small fine really motivate them to change the way they do business? If the savings created by neglecting proper safety equipment and training exceed the fines levied when workers are injured and killed by unsafe working conditions, why change a business model that has already proved profitable?
This question is made more urgent because of the people who are often victimized by bad-actor construction companies, often undocumented workers who do not have many options to earn a living. Sadly, this is exactly what happened to Luis Almonte, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who moved to New York in 2016. “… [M]y uncle had no here other than my mom and myself,” Almonte’s nephew told THE CITY. “He had no papers, he only had me to fall back on.”
Although it is not legal to report somebody’s immigration status simply because they raise a workplace safety issue, the fact is that bad-actor construction companies who disregard safety are already breaking the law, and so this can be a legitimate fear. In some cases, undocumented workers may feel like if they raise legitimate work safety issues, they could be replaced by somebody else who will assume the risk without complaint.
Maintaining a safe workplace is not an option. If you are responsible for a construction site, you are either in compliance with federal safety regulations, or you are breaking the law. There is no grey area or room for error, because as we have seen too many times, a safety violation can take somebody’s life in an instant.
And when that happens, and somebody dies in an accident that was absolutely preventable, then the punishment needs to be extremely severe, so that other contractors with the same power understand that the consequences will be dire if they fail to take safety seriously.