First time an electrical contracting firm faces criminal charges; fines could reach $500,000 per death; business owners responsible for job and safety training for employees

For the first time on record, a construction contractor faces criminal charges for allegedly violating job-safety regulations.

Rolling Meadows, Ill.-based L.E. Myers Co. is awaiting trial in U.S. District Court in Chicago after at least 35 employees have died in the three decades the government has been keeping such records.

The company has pleaded not guilty, but could face potential fines up to $500,000 per death.

In 1999, Blake Lane, a rookie in the power-line construction industry, was killed while working on a 120-ft. steel tower after he touched a live wire. His death drew scrutiny from authorities that later charged Lane was a victim of a company that has failed for decades to adequately enforce safety measures, as recently reported in The Chicago Tribune. It has also raised questions as to the effectiveness of the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

“Criminal charges are extremely rare in the plumbing industry,” says MCAA director of safety and health Pete Chaney, who has yet to see such a case involving MCAA members since he began with the organization several years ago. “A company would have to have repeat violations and a show a willful disregard to employee safety.”

Lawyers for L.E. Meyers and its parent MYR Group Inc. say the companies began a major initiative in the 1990s to improve and expand its training and safety programs, the Tribune reported, and that the “indictment to the company was a surprise.”

Business owners in the plumbing/piping industry know the significance of an OSHA inspection, and know they are responsible for proper job and safety training of employees - even those who come through union training courses.

“MCAA has always placed safety and training high on its member priority list,” says Chaney. The organization offers free training kits, safety resources, summarized OSHA standards and provides speakers for local affiliates.

And while OSHA was never intended to be the “safety police,” its work in providing outreach programs and safety consulting services has greatly increased jobsite safety within the hazardous construction industry.