Federal inspectors have assessed at least 26 companies with a total of $110,000 in fines for unsafe workplaces in New Jersey shore towns while cleaning up and repairing damage from Hurricane Sandy, an analysis of U.S. Department of Labor records shows.
The department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has documented investigations of more than 50 storm-related job sites in New Jersey’s coastal communities during the past six months since Sandy made landfall. About half of those cases resulted in no violations, while the other half found allegedly serious safety problems, the analysis by The Press of Atlantic City found.
Most violations were concentrated on Long Beach Island, where 12 different contractors were cited in Long Beach Township, Beach Haven and Ship Bottom. Other communities where more than one violation occurred were Longport, Stafford Township, Spring Lake and Seaside Park.
The Press obtained the records through a Freedom of Information Act request and by reviewing public information on the OSHA.gov website.
Most contractors, landscaping companies and other establishments have disputed these allegations, which are frequently related to exposing workers to fall hazards and not providing employees with legally required training or equipment.
OSHA enforces the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 and other applicable laws. Its investigators have jurisdiction over most private sector workplaces in New Jersey.
Many of the companies fined for Sandy-related work in New Jersey have already settled with the government, often halving the initial fine amounts. Other, more recent cases are still being negotiated or are in the appeal process.
Chuck Fuernisen, owner of Egg Harbor Township-based C.H. Fuernisen Construction, said he plans to challenge a $5,200 fine his company received in April because a worker was not wearing a safety harness while doing work at a storm-damaged home in Longport.
“I’m appealing it for sure,” Fuernisen said. “I’m always safety conscious. My guys, I run them through every safety aspect for everything that we do.”
In the immediate aftermath of the storm, some business leaders and elected officials were outraged that OSHA inspectors were at job sites on Long Beach Island and other shore towns, saying they were slowing the recovery.
OSHA officials said that maybe a couple dozen inspectors were sent to storm-damaged areas in the weeks after the storm, and that their role for at least the first month was to consult and advise utility companies and contractors in charge of recovery efforts.
“At the early stages, we provided mainly technical assistance, as opposed to enforcement, and then we segued steadily into enforcement mode,” said Kris Hoffman, area director of OSHA’s Parsippany office.
Also, most of the investigations that resulted in violations during November, in the weeks immediately following the Oct. 29 storm, were for projects that existed prior to Sandy.
Of the alleged safety violations by companies doing work unrelated to the storm but in storm-damaged towns, OSHA inspectors have levied at least another $80,000 in fines during the past six months.
Jon Nelke, owner of J Nelke Roofing Inc., was cited for two different allegedly unsafe job sites in Long Beach Township, one storm-related and one not. He reached a settlement with the department for the Sandy-related violation, an alleged fall hazard, and agreed to pay a $2,400 fine that was reduced from $4,800.
He also reached a settlement to pay $3,360 for another fall hazard violation inspectors reported on Nov. 14.
“I’m going to be paying $250 a month for the next two ... years,” Nelke said.
Paula Dixon-Roderick, area director for OSHA’s Marlton Area Office, said the influx of OSHA workers to storm areas was a standard response to an emergency, just like compliance officers were sent to Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
She also said that her office normally operates with about 16 inspectors to cover 10 counties, including all the coastal counties, and only a handful more were brought in from outside the area.
“I’m always faced with accomplishing our mission with limited resources,” she said. “Nothing has been changed, we’re just allocating our resources to where the most hazards exist.”
While these inspections were criticized by some, Hoffman and Dixon-Roderick said the point was to keep other people from dying after the storm.
OSHA investigations start when either an investigator sees hazardous activity from a public right-of-way, a complaint is made, or an accident actually occurs. Of the Sandy-related violations in New Jersey, only a few stemmed directly from accidents.
In November, a 35-foot tree fell and killed an employee with Garden State Tree & Lawn LLC, of Pittstown, who was cutting it down in Colts Neck, Monmouth County. Inspectors said the company did not provide its employees with a safe working environment, and the company agreed to pay a $1,680 fine.
In December, workers from Glenside Equipment Co., of Jackson Township, were removing curbside debris in Brick Township and directing traffic around the closed eastbound lane when one worker was hit and killed by an SUV. Inspectors said the employees did not have proper training or signs to direct traffic and assessed a $2,800 fine.
Also in December, a worker repairing a heating and cooling system damaged by the storm was found dead in a crawlspace below a home in Ventnor. That led to an investigation, but that death was determined to be from natural causes, Dixon-Roderick said.
Several contractors said the violations they were accused of were either minor or unfair. They also questioned why they were singled out when a number of other companies nearby at the same time were operating in the same way or were even less stringently following the law.
The Press contacted most of the companies who received violations for Sandy-related work and who had publicly available phone numbers. Several did not return phone calls, and others that did declined to comment because they feared reprisal by OSHA investigators.
“I don’t want to exacerbate the situation,” said Leo White, owner of Murph Construction North Inc., based in Westfield, Union County, who was cited at a job site in Long Beach Township in February and ultimately settled to pay a $1,400 fine.
One of the violations was for work being done at Holiday Inn Express on the Black Horse Pike in Egg Harbor Township’s West Atlantic City section, which was damaged by Sandy. Inspectors cited the hotel franchise owner, Picasso’s Inc., with four different safety violations, including improperly marked fire extinguishers and cleaning chemicals. The company agreed to pay a $4,900 fine.
Michael DiFrancesco, chief operating officer of Picasso’s, said that inspection in January stemmed from a complaint from a former employee, and OSHA’s records also indicate that they received a complaint.
“They just didn’t show up on my doorstep,” DiFrancesco said of the inspectors. “This all happened because of a disgruntled employee who quit, and he called everybody in the world.”
DiFrancesco did not, however, criticize the inspectors.
“They were very professional,” he said. “They weren’t out there doing damage or trying to cause problems. They were there for more of a ‘Let’s see what happened,’ type thing.”
Other company representatives said they understood why the department was investigating and why that is important.
“They’re there for our safety and our employees’ safety,” said Fuernisen. “I have no problem following their rules and everything.”
But they also complained that when it comes to their investigations, there are no warnings, no matter how seemingly minor the issue.
“They don’t say, ‘Can you fix this and we’ll be back tomorrow?’” DiFrancesco said. “When they see it, that’s it.”
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