Cal/OSHA Encourages Criminal Case in Milpitas Fatality

The agency's chief, Ellen Widess, said the employer disregarded a city stop work order in January 2012, and a carpenter's death followed three days later.

The California Department of Industrial Relations' Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA, issued 14 citations totaling $168,175 to a Fremont, Calif.-based construction and investment company, US-Sino Investments, Inc., and called for additional action in connection the death of Raul Zapata, 37, a carpenter who died when an excavation wall at a Milpitas home construction site fell on him Jan. 28, 2012. The city of Milpitas had issued a stop work order at that site three days earlier, Cal/OSHA Chief Ellen Widess said.

The wall was 10-12 feet high. "Work site regulations are in place to keep workers safe –- this completely preventable death is a vivid reminder of what can happen when those regulations are ignored," said DIR Director Christine Baker.

"Cal/OSHA's investigation into this death revealed US-Sino's disregard for the safety of its workers," Widess said. "The city of Milpitas had issued a stop work order three days before the incident due to unstable ground, yet this employer continued work and knowingly put workers at risk, with a tragic result."

The collapse followed several days of rainfall, according to Cal/OSHA, which gave this account: Zapata was working at the base of the wall on Jan. 28 when it fell, and he was pronounced dead at the scene. The wall had no soil support system installed as required by Cal/OSHA's trenching and excavation regulations, nor did US-Sino have the state-required annual or project-specific permit for any work involving a trench or excavation wall more than 5 feet deep into which workers may be lowered.

According to the agency, the instability of the soil and the risk of a further cave-in prevented rescuers from recovering Zapata's body for several days.

Cal/OSHA referred the employer to the Contractors State License Board and to DIR's Division of Labor Standards Enforcement for further enforcement action. CSLB suspended the general building contractor license of US-Sino and its owner, Richard Liu, after determining the employer did not provide workers' compensation insurance as required by law. DLSE's investigation is ongoing, and Cal/OSHA's Bureau of Investigations, which investigates fatalities and serious injuries, has an ongoing criminal investigation. "We think this case is particularly appropriate for criminal referral based on the egregious facts leading to the worker's death," Widess said.

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