State Fines Fremont Construction Firm in Milpitas Death

OSHA cited the company, US-Sino, whose president is listed as Richard Liu, for "numerous serious and willful violations" of state standards.

Nearly five months after a tragic accident, the California Department of Occupational Safety and Health on Tuesday cited a Fremont-based construction company with 14 citations totaling $168,175 following the death of a 37-year-old carpenter who was buried alive a Milpitas home under construction.

OSHA cited the company, US-Sino, whose president is listed as Richard Liu, for "numerous serious and willful violations" of state standards on January 28.

That's when Raul Zapata, a Mexican immigrant living in Hayward, was buried alive when he was building a new home at 841 Calaveras Ridge Drive. The city of Milpitas had issued a stop work order on the project three days earlier, but construction was occurring anyway. The stop-work order is still in place as of Tuesday.

Cal/OSHA’s Bureau of Investigations, which investigates fatalities and other serious injuries, has an ongoing criminal investigation.

OSHA spokeswoman Erika Monterroza said the results of that investigation could get forwarded to the Santa Clara County District Attorney. There is no statute of limitations on that investigation.

Zapata's sister-in-law Griselda Romeo declined to comment Tuesday, referring calls to a Los Gatos attorney, who also wasn't immediately available.

Liu did not return several calls or emails seeking comment.

“Worksite 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,” Department of Industrial Relations Director Christine Baker said in a statement.  “All California workers have a right to a safe work environment.”

Following several days of rainfall,  Zapata had been working at the base of the excavation wall at a residential construction site when the wall collapsed on top of him. He was pronounced dead at the scene, but because of the unstable soil, his body wasn't pulled out of the pit for several days. He was surrounded by relatives who tried unsuccessfully to save him.

The excavation wall that gave way had no soil support system installed as required by state trenching and excavation regulations.  California law also requires an annual or project-specific permit for any work that involves a trench or excavation wall exceeding five feet in depth into which workers may be lowered. US-Sino did not obtain such a permit, OSHA investigators found.  The instability of the soil and risk of further cave-in prevented rescuers from recovering  Zapata’s body for several days.

Cal/OSHA’s investigation revealed other serious safety violations at US-Sino’s worksite. 

Exposed rebar was found on the site without proper safety caps, which posed safety hazards to workers.  OSHA investigators also found that the employer failed to inspect the excavation daily, as required, or inform new workers of the hazards and safety precautions necessary for this work.   They had no injury and illness prevention plan or heat illness prevention plan in place, nor any communication plan in place to alert authorities or first responders in the event of an emergency such as this excavation cave in, investigators found.

The citations Cal/OSHA issued include five classified as serious, two of which were willful, and several general and regulatory citations. 

Cal/OSHA immediately referred this employer to the Contractors State License Board and the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement.  CSLB suspended the general building contractor license of US-Sino and its owner upon determining that the employer failed to provide workers’ compensation insurance to their employees as required by law.  DLSE’s investigation is ongoing.

“Cal/OSHA’s investigation into this death revealed US-Sino’s disregard for the safety of its workers,” said Cal/OSHA Chief Ellen Widess.  “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.”

To see a previous report following Zapata's death, click here.

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