Better safety practices could have saved the life of Howard Wood, 26, the construction worker who plunged 65 feet to his death Tuesday afternoon from the Cabin John Bridge, Maryland highway officials said yesterday.

They said it was the second time in three months that a worker on the bridge had fallen because of a safety failure.

In the first incident, on June 25, Ivan Mitchell, 45, lost his footing and fell 55 feet into shallow water. Mitchell was wearing a safety belt, but didn't have the safety line secured. He has returned to his home in Apollo, Pa., where he is being treated for leg injuries, officials said.

Wood was cleaning a steel girder when he stepped back and fell from the bridge at about 5 p.m. Tuesday. He was pronounced dead at Suburban Hospital.

"It was a preventable accident," said Michael Snider, district engineer for the State Highway Administration, the agency overseeing the Cabin John Bridge work. He said that the accident appeared to have been the result of carelessness on Wood's part -- "He didn't pay as much attention to safety as he should have" -- and the absence of a safety net.

"Employes working on jobs that are more than 25 feet above the ground are required to wear safety belts or to have netting," Snider said.

"The contractor is responsible for his employes, to make sure that the safety equipment is on the job, and the foreman is responsible for making sure that the workers are in compliance and using the safety equipment properly," Snider said.

Companies that violate the safety rules are subject to fines of $1,000 for each offense, the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health Agency said.

After the incident in which Ivan Mitchell was injured, his employer, Williams Enterprises of Falls Church, a subcontractor on the bridge job, was cited by the occupational safety and health agency for violating state safety rules and fined $1,020, said Raymond Lloyd, MOSHA's acting commissioner. Williams is appealing the citation.

The agency now is investigating the accident involving Wood, who worked for Lane Construction Co. A final report on those findings will be available in two to three weeks, officials said.

Meantime, the state highway agency has assigned one of its safety inspectors to an investigation of the Wood accident.

"Our safety investigator said it could have been prevented if better precautions had been provided, such as netting," Snider said yesterday. "A safety belt wouldn't have helped in this instance, because there was no place for the worker to hook his safety belt line."

Snider said that it was not clear whether netting was available at the job site and could have been used under the area where Wood was working.

Officials of Lane Construction, the Meriden, Conn., firm that won the contract to redeck the bridge, declined to comment on the accident or on the availability of netting.

"We are a long-established company, and we follow the standards required by the state and the federal government," said president Norman Llewellyn. "But we don't consider it proper to talk to the media. . . . We are not going to comment on anything."