By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette — The Depew contractor hired to finish the Lewiston Road reconstruction project has been accused of "willful and serious excavation safety violations" at the site by the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
In a release issued Thursday morning, OSHA announced its decision to levy fines against Accadia Site Contracting Inc. for alleged violations found at a water main site at the intersection of Lewiston Road and McKinley Avenue.
Accadia is facing a total of $84,000 in proposed fines for violations found following an inspection of the work site by representatives from OSHA’s Buffalo area office.
A release issued by OSHA on Thursday said that during a March 7 site visit agency staffers found workers in a 7-foot deep vertical-walled excavation that lacked protection to prevent wall cave-ins, and a ladder every 25 feet to facilitate a swift and safe exit from the excavation. In addition, OSHA said eight inches of water accumulated in the excavation’s bottom, increasing the likelihood of a collapse.
“An unprotected excavation can turn into a grave in seconds, crushing and burying workers beneath tons of soil before they have an opportunity to react or escape,” said Arthur Dube, OSHA’s area director in Buffalo. “These workers were fortunate — not lucky, because workplace safety must never be dependent on luck — that they were not injured or killed.”
OSHA issued a willful citation, with a fine of $70,000, for the unprotected excavation. Two serious citations, with $14,000 in fines, were issued for the water and ladder hazards. A willful violation is one committed with intentional, knowing or voluntary disregard for the law’s requirements, or with plain indifference to worker safety and health. A serious violation occurs when there is substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known.
Accadia has 15 business days from receipt of its citations and proposed penalties to comply, meet with OSHA’s area director or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.
OSHA's findings follow claims made in recent weeks by the city's former engineer, Jeffrey Skurka, who maintained following his dismissal last month by Mayor Paul Dyster's administration that proper safety rules were not being followed by the contractor on the work site. Skurka, who was terminated as engineer in a letter from Dyster's administration in April, expressed particular concern about ditches that did not have protective systems to ensure the integrity of the walls.
Skurka took medical leave before his dismissal, citing what he described as several encounters with the city’s contractors on the Lewiston Road and Buffalo Avenue road projects, Accadia Site Contracting Inc. and CATCO Construction Co. respectively. Skurka told the Gazette following his dismissal that he tangled with representatives from both companies over work conditions on the projects. He said he also had issues with the city’s engineering consultant, Wendel Duchscherer.
Representatives from Wendel Duchscherer did not respond to a request for comment Thursday afternoon.
Skurka has said he feels as though he was terminated due to the safety expectations he placed on the city's contractors and its consultant. He also has said he is considering legal action against the city and has been in contact with an attorney.
Skurka could not be reached for comment on Thursday.
Reached by telephone, Dyster said Skurka was not terminated because he raised concerns about safety on Lewiston Road.
"That's just not true," Dyster said.
The mayor would not talk about the reasons that Skurka was let go, saying it is against city policy to publicly comment on personnel matters.
"We don't discuss personnel matters, but this was not related to his dismissal," Dyster said.
Though Dyster did acknowledge that he asked Skurka to refrain from visiting the job site after the engineer had a confrontation with the contractor.
"It's not his role as the city engineer to do site visits," Dyster said. "You don't want the contractor to feel as though he is being targeted by the city engineer."
Members of the administration should be conducting site visits and monitoring the contractor's work, as that is left to the city inspectors to avoid such conflicts.
"The mayor shouldn't be going down to the site either," Dyster said.
Dyster said the alleged violations are between OSHA and the contractor and should not affect the timeline for the project or the city's ability to be reimbursed for the project by the state.
"There's no reason why this should create any delays on the job," he said.