The way two construction workers died last week in the South End is horrific and tragic enough: Kelvin Mattocks and Robert Higgins were working in a trench on Dartmouth Street when a water line broke and flooded it with water, dirt, and debris. Adding to the outrage: Their deaths were entirely preventable, had city and state officials taken minimal steps to investigate the construction company before issuing permits.
Mattocks and Higgins were employed by Roslindale-based Atlantic Drain Services, a company that, given its track record, had no business operating. But Atlantic Drain's owner was allowed to maintain his state license and obtain a city permit because of currently inadequate safeguards and screenings that fail to flag companies with blatant workplace safety violations. Beyond the culpability of Atlantic Drain is a system that let the company slip through the cracks.
The US Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration knew all about Atlantic Drain. As recently as March, the company was cited for failing to have a rescue team in place as required when workers are in underground spaces. OSHA also cited the company for a similar violation, in August 2015, at a Tremont Street worksite. Most telling — and chilling — was an OSHA violation slapped on the company in 2012 at a Harrison Avenue worksite. "An employee was exposed to cave-in hazards while working in a 9.1-foot-deep trench that had straight-cut walls with no cave-in protection," according to OSHA, which termed the violation "willful" or deliberate. It was one of four violations that year that led to $72,000 in fines. According to OSHA, Atlantic Drain is one of 12 "severe violators" of workplace safety in the Commonwealth.
Atlantic Drain not only accumulated about $100,000 in fines over the past few years, but it also had avoided paying some of them, a practice that an OSHA spokesman said is not unusual. OSHA's system allows companies to ignore the fines, which ultimately can be turned over to debt collectors.
Despite the history of violations and unpaid fines, all of which were publicly reported on OSHA's website, Atlantic Drain was still doing business. Kevin Otto, the company's owner, has a construction supervisor license. Why wasn't Atlantic Drain's record of workplace safety a red flag when granting the license to Otto? OSHA doesn't have the authority to shut down a business, a glaring gap that the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health has decried for years. But the state ought to be able to revoke Otto's license.
The City of Boston could have checked the OSHA database too, but didn't. Instead, it issues excavation permits based on a company's capacity to obtain bonding . It's enraging that the city apparently has the wherewithal to withhold permits to companies that don't employ the mayor's political supporters but can't conduct a 30-second database search.
Three government entities were unable to stop last week's tragedy, which was clearly foreshadowed by earlier safety violations. The city and state have to do better. There's no excuse for allowing a company like Atlantic Drain to slip through the cracks when the evidence of its unsuitability was hiding in plain sight on a public website.