Workplace Safety Advocates Hope Employer Prison Sentence Deters Others from Putting Workers in Danger

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Elissa Cadillic

BOSTON–Suffolk Superior Court Judge Mitchell H. Kaplan sentenced Kevin Otto, owner of Atlantic Drain Services to sentenced to two years in the House of Corrections after being found guilty of two counts of manslaughter for the deaths of employees Robert Higgins and Kelvin “Chuck” Mattocks.

Otto will have three years probation following his sentence, and he can never employ anyone in a job that involves excavation. The Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH) hopes the sentence will serve as a warning to employers that place profits over the safety of their employees that society will punish them for needlessly putting lives at risk. 

“When a worker is killed on the job, it is incredibly rare that an employer is held responsible, despite knowingly putting their workers lives at risk,” said MassCOSH Executive Director Jodi Sugerman-Brozan. “This case was even more egregious in that Kevin Otto and Atlantic Drain had already been issued multiple OSHA violations, had been placed in OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program, and even attempted to deceive investigators with falsified safety and health records after the tragic event. We hope the Mattocks and Higgins families get some peace from justice served.”

“[We are] glad there is coverage so the world will know that [Kelvin] did not die in vain and some good has come out of this,” said Melinda Mattocks-Ushry, sister of Kelvin Mattocks.

In October of 2016, MassCOSH and Greater Boston was stunned and heartbroken by the deaths of Higgins and Mattocks. The men were working in a trench in Boston’s South End that Otto knew lacked the OSHA required protections needed to prevent the earth from caving in around them. Atlantic Drain Services had a history of putting workers in unprotected trenches, leading OSHA to include them in its Severe Violator Enforcement Program. The careless business practices of their employer tragically cost Higgins and Mattocks their lives when a water supply line ruptured into the trench while they were working, drowning the men in a deadly mix of dirt and water. It took Boston firefighters hours to recover the workers’ bodies, one of whom was found fully encased in a standing position.

This past October 31, Atlantic Drain Service and Otto were each found guilty of manslaughter in a jury-waived trial in Suffolk County Superior Court.

The court found that Otto forged his employees’ signatures on records saying they had completed trench safety courses that were mandated when OSHA levied $55,000 in fines against Atlantic Drain in 2007 and again in 2012 for putting workers in deep trenches without proper safety precautions. 

In 2017, as a result of the investigation following the tragic deaths, OSHA levied an additional $1.48 million in penalties on the company for 18 willful, repeat, serious and other-than-serious violations of workplace safety standards. 

The egregious loss of life rallied MassCOSH and its partners to hold Otto accountable, including demonstrating outside of the arraignment of Atlantic Drain Services and Otto in 2017. The deaths drew sharp attention to the fact that if Atlantic Drain as a business was found guilty, it would only face a $1,000 fine due to state corporate manslaughter law remaining unchanged for over 200 years. Together, MassCOSH and advocates helped increase the penalties for corporate manslaughter, raising the fine for corporate manslaughter to $250,000. 

After the disaster, MassCOSH worked with the Boston City Council and Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh to pass an ordinance requiring companies to report their own OSHA violations when applying for a city permit. The goal is to prevent contracts and public funds from going to entities with a history of putting workers at risk. City officials can now deny permits if contractors have a record of failing to protect workers and can revoke or suspend necessary permits on the same basis. 

MassCOSH is actively involved in seeking the passage of S2372/H4125: An Act Relative to Workplace Safety (https://malegislature.gov/Bills/191/H4125). The legislation will require companies seeking to do business with the Commonwealth, or seeking a trenching permit to report their record of safety violations. If passed, the Commonwealth will be able to avoid contracting with companies that have a poor record of safety, thereby preventing future worker injuries and deaths across the state.

“Everyone deserves a safe workplace and this willful neglect by owners and corporations will not and should not be allowed to happen,” said MassCOSH Board Chair Elissa Cadillic. “We at MassCOSH continue to work to pass legislation to protect workers and now urge our legislators to follow Boston and pass an Act Relative to Workplace Safety to prevent businesses with workplace safety violations from getting permits to work in the Commonwealth. Today’s decision was a step in the right direction to ensure employers will do more to protect their workers in the future.”

“Each year, trench work is found to be one of the most deadly situations for workers and often it is due to not following OSHA regulations,” said Representative Michelle M. DuBois. “I filed [An Act Relative to Workplace Safety] a common sense, worker safety, transparent government bill to ensure municipalities have all the facts about a contractors’ OSHA violations prior to issuing permits. Chuck was a Brockton resident and his family still resides in my district. If this law was on the books, there is a good chance he would still be here today.”