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Beverly Hills contractor cited in death of 2 workers

State says proper ventilation under a Westside home could have prevented fatal fire.

August 03, 2007|Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

The February fire that killed two workers remodeling a house near UCLA resulted from a painting contractor's serious lapses in job safety, state investigators have concluded.

Cal/OSHA officials said this week that they have filed three civil citations against the Beverly Hills contractor, Alan Silverstein Inc.

The most serious citation said the employer failed to vent "flammable vapors" from the crawl space under the home where the two employees were trapped by flames. The business also is accused of neglecting to test the air in the cramped, fume-filled area.

The case against the company, which specializes in painting expensive homes and working with interior designers on costly renovation projects, will be referred to the Los Angeles County district attorney's office to look into possible criminal wrongdoing. That is a standard practice with cases involving workplace deaths.

Cal/OSHA spokesman Dean Fryer said the agency found that the contractor was "in violation of safety and health regulations that led to the accident causing these fatalities."

He said investigators believed that the fire, which caused minor burns to one or two other workers who managed to escape the flames, could have been prevented if the contractor had used fans or pumps to properly ventilate the job site.

The workers were exposed to fumes while applying a primer to floor beams, apparently to treat the wood. The fatal fire erupted after the vapors were ignited, possibly by a lamp or a broken bulb that had been used to light the area.

Mark Werksman, the lawyer for the contractor, declined to comment on the specifics of the Cal/OSHA citations, saying that "we're facing a criminal prosecution, potentially, and so I really don't want to say much."

He said he would appeal the citations and disputed the conclusion that his client's practices led to the fatal accident.

"We didn't want to see the imposition of any fines or penalties because we believe that what happened was an accident, and that Mr. Silverstein should not have to bear any liability for it," Werksman said.

"He takes great pride in his work, and he's always had a very loyal and dedicated crew," Werksman said of the head of the contracting company, Alan Silverstein, who is in his mid-40s.

Cal/OSHA officials said Wednesday that they could find no record of previous workplace safety infractions involving Silverstein, who has been in the painting business for about 20 years.

Gary A. Dordick, a lawyer for the family of one of the victims, Juan Rivera, called Cal/OSHA's proposed penalties inadequate. He said the fines would total $21,255 at most.

He added that, because the deaths occurred in a work setting, the families of the victims probably would not be able to file a civil lawsuit. Instead, Dordick said, they are likely to be able to seek redress only from the state workers' compensation system, where benefits are limited.

In the case of Rivera, 51, who had a wife and two young children, workers' compensation benefits would at most be $320,000.

"It's a very typical example of what occurs with serious injuries in the workplace," Dordick said. "Employers are shielded by workers' compensation insurance, and the fines, if any, issued by the state are insufficient to deter future wrongful conduct."

Also killed in the fire was Conrado Sanchez-Cruz, 32, who, like Rivera, had lived in the East San Fernando Valley.

The fatal fire broke out Feb. 7 beneath a 3,600-square-foot home in the 1000 block of Manning Avenue, a few blocks southeast of UCLA in the Little Holmby neighborhood. Firefighters broke through the floor of the one-story house to try to rescue the trapped workers, but the men died at the scene.

stuart.silverstein@latimes.com

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