Asleep at the wheel

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  October 3, 2012

WORK-IN-PROGRESS Cardi’s poor environmental record has proven no impediment to hundreds of millions in state contracts.


Workplace safety violations, however regrettable, are relatively common in the construction industry. Nineteen of the 32 highway contractors the Phoenix closely examined for this story faced some sort of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fine in recent years.

But every once in awhile, OSHA runs up against what it calls a "recalcitrant employer," a firm that flouts its safety obligations despite repeated warnings. And in the worst cases, the federal government seeks what is known as an 11(b) court order to force reform.

This is serious stuff. An employer who fails to comply is subject to arrest. "You only get one bite at the apple," says Patrick Griffin, who runs OSHA's Rhode Island office.

In New England, the courts have issued just 13 of these orders in the past decade. And one of them went to John Rocchio Corporation, a Greenville firm that has done millions of dollars in work for the state in recent years.

Rocchio's safety problems date back to at least 2003, when OSHA cited the firm for a series of violations.

Then, in June 2007, three separate inspections of Rocchio job sites turned up six violations — two of them "willful," which the regulations define as either "intentional" or committed with "plain indifference" to the law. OSHA hit the company with $116,200 in fines.

The firm contested OSHA's findings before agreeing to an amended penalty of $63,000 and an extensive new safety regime; John Rocchio, himself, was required to attend a trench and excavation training course.

But the message, apparently, did not get through.

On June 5, 2008, OSHA inspectors paid a visit to a Rocchio job site on Davisville Road in North Kingstown and found a pair of employees in an eight-foot-deep trench without a ladder or other safe means of egress.

The fill they'd excavated was on the edge of the trench, not at the two-foot distance required. And there were no proper cave-in protections. OSHA, which had found similar problems the year before, levied a $216,000 fine, later reduced.

In a statement announcing the penalty Griffin, the Rhode Island OSHA chief, explained that when a contractor fails to provide adequate protections "walls can collapse suddenly and with great force, crushing or burying workers before they can react or escape."

It's the kind of violation that infuriates safety advocates. "If you asked me to pick the one work hazard that is . . . a) highly likely to cause a worker death or serious injury; and b) easily preventable by using well-established practices and equipment, I would pick trench cave-ins," writes Tom O'Connor, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, in an email to the Phoenix.

"Two thousand years [after] the hazard was recognized and protective measures described, that any worker still dies as a result of trench collapses is appallingly negligent at best, and criminal at worst."

By January 2009, the federal government had obtained the 11(b) order against Rocchio, which has abided by its terms. But the firm was hardly the only state highway contractor with serious workplace safety problems.

OSHA hit Lidell Brothers, a Halifax, Massachusetts-based firm that does work in Rhode Island, with a willful violation in 2007 and three repeat violations in 2008. And more recently: the curious case of Enrico DiGregorio, whose Smithfield-based DiGregorio Inc has done millions in state highway work in recent years.

DiGregorio operates a sand and gravel mine in Glocester under the name Bella Sand. And after a March 2008 inspection by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) turned up 15 safety violations, DiGregorio informed MSHA that he had closed the facility.

That was just the start of a remarkable game of cat-and-mouse.

Over the next couple of years, according to a complaint filed by the US Department of Labor in US District Court, MSHA repeatedly found evidence that the mine — formally in "abandoned" status — was up-and-running and plagued by safety problems; one inspector saw truck tracks running across unprotected 480-volt power cables.

DiGregorio, according to the court filing, alternately hid from, and blew up at, MHSA officials, claiming the mine was closed despite clear evidence to the contrary. At one point, Inspector John Zahner sent 37 citations to DiGregorio by certified mail, rather than present them in person, "out of concern for Inspector Zahner's safety."

In April 2011, the federal government won a preliminary injunction requiring Bella Sand to quit interfering with inspections. The government eventually dropped the case when DiGregorio, who did not return calls for comment, started to cooperate.

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