“I think most people agree that we want our public dollars to go to those companies that are not cutting corners.”
Tragedy struck Boston early in the morning on February 24, when two men working at a construction site in the Financial District were hit by a truck and sent reeling into a hole. The victims—Jordan Romero and Carlos Gutierrez —both died on scene.
It was a horrific moment of déjà vu for the city, conjuring another accident that claimed a pair of lives in 2016. That October, two men drowned at a South End construction site after the trench in which they were working flooded with mud and water. Atlantic Drain Service Co., the company in charge at that grisly scene, had neglected basic safety protocols that would have prevented the deaths—and also turned out to have an extensive history of OSHA violations.
After this 2016 incident, Boston passed an ordinance empowering the city to deny permits to companies with “a history of engaging in unsafe, hazardous or dangerous practices based on work safety histories or concerns.”
But Atlantic Coast Utilities—the company responsible at the scene of last month’s accident—failed to disclose their five OSHA violations in the process of seeking a construction permit from the city of Boston, according to Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health executive director Jodi Sugerman-Brozan.
“That was a problem—they were untruthful,” Sugerman-Brozan said. “Still, we know that in many cases, that ordinance worked to keep bad actors out of the city of Boston. They were able to deny permits and/or revoke permits when they found out that companies had a history of unsafe conditions that could lead to injury and death in workers.”
Indeed, the ordinance allowed Boston to rescind Atlantic Coast Utilities’ permit until an investigation determines whether the February accident falls within the pattern of neglect established by their past violations. Atlantic Coast Utilities could not be reached for comment.
“I hope the company pays the price for everything they ever got away with,” said Leslie Villalobos, the sister of Jordan Romero, one of the two victims. “My brother was a very hard-working, ambitious man. He always dreamed of giving his two children the best life they deserve. Since they live in El Salvador, he worked very hard every day to provide money for them, and he wanted to bring them to the States to give them a better opportunity. He always put everyone before him—he made sure everyone was good and well taken care of before himself.”
“I know we’ll meet again,” Villalobos added. “For now, he watches over his mother and his three loving sisters, as well as his two children that he loved dearly.”
The tragedy that Villalobos and her family are enduring is an example of what would happen all the more often in Boston if not for the ordinance filtering out the majority of “bad actors.” That’s why MassCOSH issued a press release after the accident urging state legislators to finally approve a bill—first filed in 2017—that would functionally extend the Boston ordinance to the entirety of Massachusetts.
“Anybody seeking a state contract or state trenching permit would have to disclose their OSHA violations and their health and safety record when seeking a permit for construction,” Sugerman-Brozan explained. “I think most people agree that we want our public dollars to go to those companies that are not cutting corners, those that are doing right by their workers. And at the moment, because the state and public contracts have to go to the lowest bidder, those companies that cut corners have an edge.”
“So many people continue to be shocked, year after year, at the number of workplace fatalities in Massachusetts. They think it’s a thing of the past, but the reality is we see between 65 and 75 workers every year die on average. And even one is too many.”
The bill—An Act Relative to Workplace Safety and Disclosure of Violations—is now spending its third session on the Massachusetts legislature’s docket. Its first go was in 2017, and its second was last year. But co-sponsors Sen. Paul Feeney and Rep. Michelle Dubois are confident that the third time’s the charm.
“Last session, I felt like we had some momentum behind this initiative,” Feeney explained. “But, of course, with COVID-19 and a lot of the other priorities that we were facing in the legislature, the clock ran out.”
Feeney said that momentum is reaccumulating in light of the recent tragedy, which he said left him “heartbroken.”
“I think for a lot of a lot of legislators, this is on the radar screen,” the senator added.
“We’re hearing from workers all over the Commonwealth saying that this is long past time to be enacted into law. We’re going to be making an aggressive push to pass this as quickly as possible.”
“It was teed up to pass last session,” Dubois affirmed. “I’m hopeful that it’s gonna pass this session.”
DuBois noted that one of the victims of the 2016 trenching accident—Kelvin “Chuck” Mattocks—was her constituent.
“When people go to work, there should be confidence that they’re going to come home,” she said. “I’m going to work really hard with a huge group of construction unions, as well as MassCOSH and their affiliates to get this passed.”
Deborah “Debbie” Berkowitz, the Worker Health and Safety Program Director at the National Employment Law Project, recalled submitting testimony on behalf of the bill when it was first filed in 2017. She said she is eager to see it finally clear the legislature.
“I think this would be a good model for other states,” Berkowitz added, noting that this type of legislation is hardly a new player on the national stage. Then-President Barack Obama issued an executive order in 2014 that required prospective federal contractors to disclose labor law violations. Trump overturned the order in 2017.
Berkowitz said Obama’s order may eventually get a second life at the federal level—but for now, it’s up to the states to take charge and pass legislation to protect their workers. State action won’t bring victims back, but it will certainly protect other workers—and their families—from a brutal fate.
“Losing a brother was the worst pain, the worst loss I’ve ever had to go through,” Villalobos said. “To make it a little less painful I pretend that he went away on a trip and just forgot to say goodbye.”
“I pray this doesn’t happen to any other family.”
Juliet is a college student studying philosophy at Harvard. Her writing & reporting appear in STAT News, the Harvard Crimson, the Harvard Advocate, and the Harvard Political Review.