Federal regulators have slapped three construction firms with nearly $800,000 in total penalties, saying the companies “put workers in tremendous danger” in Houston-area accidents that highlighted a lax safety culture that extends across Texas. 

“More construction workers in Texas die on the job than in any other state,” David Michaels, who heads the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), told reporters Wednesday. “Workers are not being given adequate protection.”

Michaels was announcing thousands of dollars in proposed fines after the agency wrapped up investigations at two Houston-area construction sites where workers were seriously injured and “could have easily died,” he said.  

In February, an 8-foot trench collapsed at an excavation site in Richmond, Texas, burying an employee for Hassell Construction Company. His colleagues dug him out with their bare hands just before the trench collapsed again. The worker was sent to the hospital with serious injuries.

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OSHA fined the Houston company a total of $423,900 for 16 safety violations, six labeled “egregious willful” for failing to protect employees from a cave-in. Nine “serious” violations stemmed from failing to remove debris from the edge of an excavation.

The agency also enrolled the company in its "severe violators program" — a list of more than 460 U.S. work sites — which means that OSHA inspectors will return to its work sites more frequently than normal.

“We’ve known for 2,500 years how to prevent trench collapses,” Michaels said. “This employer put this worker in tremendous danger.”

Hassell did not immediately return messages. Like all companies, it has the option to contest the penalties. 

In Houston last January, a temporary worker fell 12 feet through a roof, suffering a broken arm and serious contusions. That was after his bosses at Katy-based Cotton Commercial USA rebuffed his request for a safety harness and did not report the injury for three days – flouting federal requirements to report within 24 hours, OSHA’s investigation found.

The agency proposed fines totaling $362,500 for seven safety violations, including one that was labeled “willful” and four considered “willful egregious.” The agency also issued a $4,900 fine to Gardia Construction, which supplied workers to Cotton Commercial, saying that the Houston contractor failed to regularly inspect job sites where its employees worked.

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Neither company responded to requests for comment.

Guardia did not carry insurance, making OSHA “very concerned about what will happen to this worker," Michaels said.

Texas is the only U.S. state that does not require employers to carry workers' compensation insurance.  Just 40 percent of construction firms carry it, according to a study jointly compiled by the Workers Defense Project and researchers at the University of Texas at Austin.

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