Part 2 of the Las Vegas Sun series on construction worker deaths along the Las Vegas Strip shows that the state’s Occupational Health and Safety Adminstration often goes easy on employers who violate safety regulations and fail to maintain safe working conditions.
The pattern seems to be to blame the worker, even when there are clear safety violations on the part of the company. Fines, if they’re issued, are often paltry – certainly not enough to hit the pocketbooks of the multimillion and billion dollar companies that are building casinos in Las Vegas:
A Sun examination of OSHA accident documents related to nine recent construction fatalities on the Strip shows that investigators found serious safety violations in the cases, but the agency often did not follow up with aggressive enforcement. Instead, after meeting privately with contractors, the agency withdrew or reduced fines.
Government and private safety experts outside of Nevada as well as the families of the accident victims told the Sun they are surprised and disturbed by OSHA’s conduct after the fatalities.
Frank Strasheim, a former regional administrator in the federal OSHA office in San Francisco, and other experts say they have seen many citations removed by federal and state OSHA offices elsewhere – but rarely in cases involving deaths.
“My rule of thumb has always been that you hold the line on a fatality,” Strasheim said. “A fatality is the worst possible thing.”
If employers offer statements that contradict elements of the initial investigation, OSHA administrators should reopen the investigation rather than quickly overturn citations, he said. Strasheim and others said that a pattern withdrawing citations could indicate that Nevada OSHA is either doing a bad job in its initial investigations, or is overusing a provision in OSHA laws that allows the agency to reverse itself if it thinks the findings won’t hold up under review.
Here is how Nevada OSHA handled the eight cases in addition to Billingsley:
o Harvey Englander, 65, a veteran operating engineer and employee of construction giant Perini Building Company Inc., who died Aug. 9, 2007, when struck by the counterweight of a manlift, or elevator, at CityCenter.
OSHA found that Perini violated six safety laws.
The findings were withdrawn.
o Angel Hernandez and Bobby Lee Tohannie, carpenters killed Feb. 6, 2007, when crushed inside an elevator shaft at CityCenter by 7,300-pound structures that support poured concrete.
OSHA found the site’s general contractor, Perini, did not make sure the forms were properly secured and did not train employees in the proper removal of the forms. The agency fined Perini $14,000.
At an informal conference between OSHA and Perini, an OSHA administrator withdrew one violation and left the other intact, for a total fine of $7,000.
o Isidro “Willie” Pelayo, the worker killed when a buggy jerked and threw him down an elevator shaft at Trump on Dec. 5, 2006.
OSHA found that Perini had failed to train employees in the use of buggies and had not maintained them properly or checked to see whether they were safe. Three violations carried $18,900 in total fines. At the informal conference, OSHA agreed to withdraw one fine and downgrade another, reducing fines to $8,300.
o Michael Hanson, a laborer working for Taylor International Corp. at Palazzo, who was killed when a piece of a concrete slab raised by a forklift struck him in the head on Nov. 26, 2007. The investigation found that using the forklift to remove concrete was common at the Palazzo even though that use is forbidden by the forklift manufacturer and by OSHA. The agency found one violation and fined Taylor $6,300.
At the informal conference, OSHA reduced the fine to $3,780.
o Michael Taylor, 58, a Perini safety engineer at Cosmopolitan. He died Jan. 14, 2008 after apparently falling five floors when a corner iron post that helped hold up a guardrail system collapsed.
In the investigation, OSHA found that Reliable Steel, a subcontractor, had not replaced key support pieces and hadn’t properly welded the posts. It was inevitable the post would malfunction in time, the investigator wrote. OSHA also found that Reliable Steel was underreporting injuries in its required injury logs. The agency issued four citations for fines totaling $2,850.
Reliable Steel has contested the citations, and OSHA will hold the informal conference in April.
o Norvin Tsosie, 36, who fell from a wall at Fontainebleau on Aug. 2, 2007.
OSHA fined his employer, Nevada Prefab Engineers, $17,925 for 10 violations for allowing workers to use makeshift materials that hadn’t been tested, and for not making sure that safety harnesses were properly attached.
The subcontractor did not contest the findings.
o David Rabun Jr., 30, an ironworker at Cosmopolitan. He fell four floors on Nov. 27, 2007, while replacing bolts in a steel beam inside an elevator shaft.
OSHA found that Rabun’s employer, Schuff Steel, had violated six safety laws, including not making sure the steel he was working on was secure, and not putting a net or decking underneath him. Schuff Steel was asked to pay $12,150.
OSHA held an informal conference with Schuff on Feb. 27. That came after the Sun repeatedly asked the agency about its handling of earlier cases and after federal OSHA officials, responding to newspaper inquiries, expressed dismay to the Sun regarding the state agency’s actions.
For the first time involving a Strip fatality during the current building boom, OSHA stood by the original findings and did not make a deal with the employer. The case will most likely be appealed to an OSHA review panel.