News Feature | October 31, 2016

Following Deaths Of Wastewater Workers, Utility Adopts New Safety Standards

Dominique 'Peak' Johnson

By Peak Johnson

After the deaths of two contract workers at a wastewater treatment facility, El Paso Water has changed its policies to include safety requirements for contract work.

The widow of Carlos Ramos, one of the men who died tragically after being trapped in a room flooded with sludge at a wastewater treatment plant in 2014, filed a lawsuit. Priscilla Meraz, according to the El Paso Times, is suing the city of El Paso, TX, the El Paso Water Utilities Service Board, and Cubic Water LLC, for non-monetary relief of over $200,000.

The damages being sought include the funeral costs, burial expenses, and among others, physical pain and suffering experienced by Ramos.

Ramos and his co-worker John Barrow had worked for Cubic Water LLC and were replacing a sludge pump at the Roberto R. Bustamante Wastewater Treatment Plant in the Lower Valley in October 2014.

The deaths of both men had been reported to the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration, according to the El Paso Times. The administration managed and completed an investigation in April of last year.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) documents show that Cubic Water LLC had been “cited with five serious violations in the deaths, including regulations for respiratory protection, occupational safety and health standards, and exposure to toxic and hazardous substances.”

The company did receive a fine of $30,400, however, OSHA documents showed that the company was able to settle and get the penalties reduced to $18,000.

The agency followed up with an investigation soon after that lasted from February until August. According to OSHA documents, the company was fined for about $12,300 for “two instances of violating respiratory protection regulations and for failing to control hazardous energy.”

Manuel Villalobos, the owner of Cubic Water, said he was fighting the citations

Earlier this month, the Public Service Board approved updating its purchasing policy to include safety standards for those seeking to contract with the utility, the El Paso Times reported.

Alan Shubert, vice president of operations and technical services, told the El Paso Times that “the water utility has been working toward ramping up its safety program for a few years as part of the utility’s core value of safety, which includes acting to protect public safety and the personal safety of employees and contractors.”

Shubert added that updating the policy now was the next step in an ongoing effort to improve safety.

Now the utility will require “safety records of bidders and subcontractors for projects above $100,000. Among the required documentation will be workers’ compensation forms from their insurance providers, U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration forms pertaining to the company for the past three years and the company’s records from the OSHA website, which allows the public to search for specific company records.”

The updated policy, however, does state that if a company has a fatality on its record, “El Paso Water can determine whether the death was caused by factors outside of the company’s control and still award the contract.”

The El Paso Times reported that Shubert said “this was placed in the policy in case a company has negative marks on its record due to circumstances beyond its control.”

For more on employee safety issues visit Water Online’s Labor Solutions Center.