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FORT MYERS — A phone call could have prevented a tragedy.
But Posen Construction’s failure to call or take other precautions before digging was a willful violation of safety standards leading to the November gas explosion that critically injured one man and snuffed out stoves and ovens across Southwest Florida, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
“The agency defines a willful violation as one committed with plain indifference or intentional disregard for employee safety and health,” said U.S. Department of Labor spokesman Mike D’Aquino.
OSHA fined Posen $70,000, which is the maximum allowed to be imposed. It’s due within 15 days, as is any request to contest the penalty.
“Call before you dig” is the slogan of Sunshine State One Call, a not-for-profit funded by utility owners that works to prevent damages to underground utilities and the fines, injuries and environmental concerns that often ensue.
It is not known why Posen officials made the call to proceed digging their blades into the ground where gas line locations were unmarked in the area of the road widening project on the south side of Colonial Boulevard between State Road 82 and Treeline Avenue.
The Posen construction equipment’s blades struck a buried gas line causing a massive explosion and several-day gas outage in the area.
Posen representatives in the Estero office referred the Daily News to Human Resources Director Rick Cook at the corporate office located in Shelby Township, Mich. Cook did not return calls Wednesday.
The construction company failed to “proceed using caution and detection equipment or other acceptable means to locate underground utility installations when the utility company could not establish the exact locations of these installations,” according to the citation and notification of penalty sent to Posen by OSHA District 4 Director Leslie L. Grove III on April 8.
Another citation was issued for only providing an employee safety handbook in English as not all employees are able to speak and read English. A penalty was not imposed for that, but the company was to have it remedied by now.
The employer failed to locate the 8-inch, high pressure, steel gas line prior to operating their equipment where the natural gas line, which is owned by Tampa-based TECO People Gas, had been relocated.
The truck’s rotary blades struck the buried gas line, which ignited and engulfed the equipment and operator in flames, OSHA reported.
Mario Santos, 26, was that construction worker. He suffered burns over 50 percent of his body.
Santos, after months of surgeries and physical therapy at a Tampa hospital, returned to his family’s home in Bonita Springs on March 1.
The ensuing explosion caused a major break in the Southwest Florida system and resulted in a loss of natural gas service to about 6,000 residential and 1,200 commercial customers in Lee and Collier counties.
A class-action lawsuit was filed against TECO People’s Gas and Posen Construction on Nov. 24 in Lee Circuit Court on behalf of Collier and Lee county businesses that lost money due to the explosion.
The damages sought by the plaintiffs include lost income due to being unable to use gas appliances for food preparation and other services; the elimination or significant reduction of customers while gas wasn’t available; and business expenses to compensate for the loss of gas.
TECO officials have remained adamant that Posen Construction could have avoided the explosion by listening to TECO officials’ warnings not to dig in an area where gas line markers were missing, according to previous reports in the Daily News.
TECO has not been cited by OSHA for any violations.