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Undisclosed violations could have halted construction company’s work in Boston; two killed in downtown accident

The workplace deaths raise questions about safety practices at Atlantic Coast Utilities, as well as the city’s oversight of contractors.

Firefighters prepared to move the bodies of two men from a hole in High Street in Boston on Wednesday.
Firefighters prepared to move the bodies of two men from a hole in High Street in Boston on Wednesday.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The owner of the company involved in a fatal construction accident this week in downtown Boston failed to disclose to the city that his company had numerous workplace safety violations, which could have disqualified it from construction work, records show.

Laurence M. Moloney, owner of Atlantic Coast Utilities, has a lengthy history of workplace infractions and legal disputes, among them citations by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration of willful, serious violations that included hazardous conditions for its workers.

A city ordinance created after a fatal job site accident in 2016 gives Boston the authority to reject construction permits for anyone with “a history of engaging in unsafe, hazardous, or dangerous practices based on work safety histories or concerns.”

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But Moloney did not disclose his company’s troubles on licensed contractor affidavits filed in August 2019 and December 2020, records show, and it appears the city did not investigate or check on his claims because the company continued to work in Boston.

An Atlantic Coast Utilities crew was repairing a sewer line for an office building in the Financial District Wednesday morning, when a truck struck two workers and knocked them into an excavated ditch in the street. Jordan Romero, 27, and Juan Carlos Figueroa Gutierrez, 33, were killed.

Attempts to reach Moloney on Friday were unsuccessful. He declined to comment to the Globe a day earlier.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in an e-mail Friday night that a licensed contractor’s affidavit is one of “several required documents of any permit applicant, and as such, is one of several tools the city has to deny a permit.” As of last May, a COVID-19 safety plan is also a prerequisite for applicants. The city could not say how many permits it has denied, saying it has no way to track this.

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The workplace fatalities raise questions about safety practices at Atlantic Coast Utilities, as well as the city’s oversight of contractors. The tragedy occurred as Walsh, a former union leader who once worked in construction, appears poised to become secretary of the US Department of Labor, which oversees the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The list of transgressions by Moloney’s company includes several OSHA citations. But Moloney said his company had no citations on affidavits filed with the city in August 2019 and in December 2020, which asked directly if OSHA had issued any violations.

In 2016, OSHA proposed fines of around $35,000 for one “willful” and two “serious” violations, agency records show. Edmund Fitzgerald, a spokesman for the federal agency, said the company did not pay the penalties and the case was referred to the Treasury Department for debt collection.

At that time, OSHA officials said, “Employees were exposed to . . . hazards from asphalt pavement while working an excavation where street pavement had become undermined and no support was installed to prevent collapse.”

Additionally, authorities said that workers were exposed to “cave-in and engulfment hazards” at the site of an “unprotected and unsupported excavation.”

In 2019, OSHA sought to fine the company $7,500 for allegedly failing to provide safety instructions to workers and for allegedly violating safety rules, records show. Atlantic Coast Utilities contested the citations.

A little more than two months after OSHA issued its penalties in the 2019 case, and again in 2020, Moloney submitted to the city the signed affidavit, under penalties of perjury, saying the federal agency had not issued any notice or violation against his company for the previous five years.

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The affidavits signed by Moloney are called a “Mattocks-Higgins Affidavit of Workplace Safety,” a document that draws its name from the 2016 tragedy at a construction site in the South End, where a trench collapse took the lives of two men: Kelvin Mattocks and Robert Higgins.

Both Higgins and Mattocks worked for Atlantic Drain Services, a Roslindale company that was found to have a long and troubling history of violations, including citations for workers lacking oxygen underground and for conditions that could lead to cave-ins, according to federal records. Ultimately, the owner of Atlantic Drain was sentenced to two years behind bars for failing to take safety precautions in the South End case.

Following the tragedy, Walsh pushed a proposal intended to hold individuals and companies accountable and provide better protection for workers by giving the city the power to intervene on their behalf. The City Council passed the measure, which requires that individuals or businesses receiving work permits in Boston report their safety record — current or unresolved — including any violations with OSHA.

Previously, the city did not have the authority to require that history and was not notified of OSHA violations.

But Wednesday’s deaths raise questions about the effectiveness of that legislation. According to the city’s website, a “Mattocks-Higgins Affidavit of Workplace Safety is required to be submitted annually by any company” applying for a work permit.

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Such affidavits expire at the start of each construction season and must be resubmitted each year by May 1 or before applying for a new permit, according to the city’s site.

OSHA citations are public records and available online, but it is unclear whether the city checked the veracity of the 2019 or 2020 affidavits.

Martin Hewitt, an uncle of Higgins, one of the men who died in the 2016 trench collapse, said he was frustrated to learn of Atlantic Coast Utilities’ history of violations. He said if the city ordinance cannot prevent a company like Moloney’s from doing work in Boston, “What good is it?”

City Councilor Michelle Wu recalled Friday how swiftly the city passed the safety reforms in 2016. The deaths this week make it clear more needs to be done, she said, such as proactive monitoring of potential federal workplace violations.

”Our policies are only as good as the implementation,” Wu said. “The city can step into our own power to ensure safe working conditions and good jobs.”

The Boston Water and Sewer Commission has denied Globe requests for documents and licenses linked to Atlantic Coast Utilities, citing the ongoing criminal investigation.

“It is the Commission’s position that the disclosure of these records will compromise an ongoing law enforcement investigation and is, therefore, not in the public interest,” said Dolores Randolph, the agency’s spokeswoman, in a statement.

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A spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins said Friday that the office is “working with all of our law enforcement partners both local and federal to conduct a thorough investigation.” The spokesman had no further comment.

The city’s Water and Sewer Commission, which is overseen by a three-member Board of Commissioners that is appointed by the mayor with the approval of the City Council, did release a document that includes details about Wednesday’s construction job, fees, and contractor. But it’s not clear what other agencies and departments in the city were required to give the emergency sewer repair work on High Street the green light.

In addition to the OSHA citations, Moloney pleaded guilty in 2008 in Boston Municipal Court to criminal charges that he failed to pay his workers a prevailing wage and their earned overtime that year, when he owned a company called Shannon Construction. He was ordered to pay almost $300,000 in penalties and fines.

Records also show that since April 2019, officials have removed the company’s vehicles from service for safety reasons at higher rates than the national average.

Separately, the state’s Department of Public Utilities found that in 2018 and 2019 Atlantic Coast Utilities violated the state’s dig safe law, which is designed to protect the public from excavation accidents. The agency said Friday the company has not paid the $6,000 in fines.

Laura Crimaldi of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald. Andrew Ryan can be reached at andrew.ryan@globe.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan. John R. Ellement can be reached at john.ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.