A New Jersey contractor and its principal recently pleaded guilty to federal charges of willfully violating OSHA regulations over the 2017 death of a worker at a Poughkeepsie, N.Y. construction site. Prosecutors say the company's operations manager ignored an engineer’s approved plan, leading to a fatal retaining wall collapse. 

Hackensack, N.J.-based builder OneKey, the general contractor on an apartment building project at the site, faces a fine of up to $500,000. Its operations manager, 57-year-old Finbar O’Neill of Paramus, N.J., faces up to six months in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. 

U.S. Attorney Damian Williams had announced the charges last summer on the fifth anniversary of the collapse.

An engineer had approved a compaction plan that called for 15-ft-tall soil surcharges to be placed on the sites of three future buildings. Because of the amount of material involved, the project team opted to compact one site at a time. 

Under the engineer’s plan, the surcharge edges were sloped to the ground at a 45-degree angle beyond each building footprint. But for the final building site, the contractor decided to build a temporary concrete block retaining wall between the surcharge and the other compacted sites so they could start construction on the first two buildings. The wall was not reviewed or approved by an engineer, prosecutors say.

Even after the site superintendent warned O’Neill of the danger and advised him to consult with an engineer, O’Neill said he did not care, prosecutors allege in court documents.

While workers began constructing the first two buildings, the contractor added soil to the surcharge with heavy equipment driven on top of the surcharge. O’Neill continued to ignore warnings from people working at the site who said it was not safe, prosecutors say. 

The wall collapsed on Aug. 3, 2017. Maximiliano Saban, who worked for a subcontractor on the project, was killed, and another employee was injured, records show.

Williams said in a statement that OneKey and O’Neill “endangered the safety of their workers by willfully disregarding regulations and taking shortcuts to sidestep their safety obligations.”

Scott Resnik, an attorney representing O’Neill and OneKey, said in a statement that the misdemeanor guilty pleas demonstrate the responsibility they have accepted for the accident. 

“By taking this final step, Mr. O’Neill and OneKey hope that these misdemeanor resolutions can help bring closure to this incident, for not only themselves, but also for the family of the construction worker who passed away as a result of the accident in 2017,” Resnik said.

Sentencing is scheduled for May 12 before a federal judge in White Plains, N.Y.

Additionally, the U.S. Dept. of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited OneKey in 2018, proposing more than $280,000 in penalties. OneKey contested the fines, and a final decision is still pending review by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Review Commission.