Monday, February 14, 2005

Contractor Had Been Warned of Crane Danger Before Collapse That Killed Four

We've been reading a lot recently about W.R. Grace's failure to inform its employees and the community of the hazards they faced from exposure to asbestos -- and the resulting deaths of hundreds -- and illness that may stretch into the thousands.

Now we hear about a similar story of a company that had been warned of the hazards of the equipment it was using, but ignored the hazards and failed to inform its employees or the joing safety committee of the warnings.

You may recall the collapse last year of a giant crane that killed four ironworkers -- Mike Phillips, 42; Mike Moreau, 30; Robert Lipinski, Jr., 44, and Arden Clark II, 47 -- in Toledo last February. OSHA handed down four "willful" citations and a $280,000 fine against the construction company -- Frucon -- for not anchoring the crane adeqately.

Now a Toledo Blade investigation has revealed that the Italian manufacturer of the crane had warned Fru-Con four times that the crane was inadquately anchored:
  • The crane's designers, Paolo de Nicola SpA, sent four messages to Fru-Con in mid-2003 complaining the contractor wasn't safely anchoring the cranes during the first major test - including the memo that warned of a collapse.

  • Fru-Con said it corrected the problems after the test. But the construction firm later reduced the number of anchoring bolts it used on the cranes, bridge workers told investigators, against manufacturer specifications.

  • Fru-Con complained about crane design flaws, such as an inability to "accommodate" bridge curves. Yet Fru-Con did not share its concerns, or the concerns of Paolo de Nicola, with a special labor-management-government committee set up to ensure worker safety. The crane collapsed while setting up over a future bridge curve.

  • Government watchdog agencies never inspected the safety of the cranes, which had not been used previously in northwest Ohio. One former official of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration said the agency's local office lacked the expertise.
Why would Fru-Con ignore the warnings? Possibly because the state of Ohio was offering the company millions of dollars of incentives to finish the job early.
Michael S. Poles, a construction accident consultant based in West Hollywood, Calif., said contractors, in general, have a duty to either ensure safety concerns with equipment are addressed - or stop using the equipment.

But, he said, many contractors, facing tight deadlines and costly late penalties, will risk worker safety instead of halting a project over questionable equipment.

"Unequivocally, safety has got to come first," Mr. Poles said. "Unfortunately, it most often does take a back seat to fiscal considerations," he said.
Ironically, Fru-Con had a safety "partnership" with the state,OSHA and the union -- everyone vowing to work together to keep the project safe and to share all safety information. Despite the agreement, Fru-Con never informed the committee of the warnings by Paolo de Nicola of the potentially inadequate anchoring.
[Ironworker Joe]Kolling said he and his co-workers would have liked to have been told about all the concerns, including PdN's memos warning of anchoring problems during the test-launch.

"We might have said, 'We're not going to do it.' We might have walked off," he added.

As it was, ironworkers didn't understand the complex physics behind the cranes and had to trust the project engineers, he said.
Fru-Con says there was not safety problem to take to the committee.

On the first anniversary of the collapse, February 16, the Ohio Department of Transportation will will observe a moment of silence at the site in remembrance of the four workers killed, and the four workers injured. According to the press release, "ODOT, Fru-Con, and the Unions all believe that the accidents anniversary needs to be appropriately recognized."

But you wouldn't know anything tragic had ever happened by reading the Fru-Con website which boasts of its safety "culture", its "zero-incident policy" and its "award-winning safety program":
Safety is not just a statistic or policy at Fru-Con--it's our culture. A zero-incident policy permeates the entire organization. It's rooted in a longstanding tradition of ensuring our people make it home safely every night.

Our industry-leading safety results stem from our award-winning safety program and are proof positive of our commitment to safety. Recognized twice consecutively as the safest large contractor in the nation by the Business Roundtable, we pride ourselves on making certain each employee has a safe work environment.

In addition to numerous safety awards from our clients and peers, Fru-Con maintains an internal safety awards and incentive program. This helps us drive home the message that safety comes first.

These efforts provide our clients with unsurpassed safety standards and lower insurance rates. The bottom line is better, safer, more cost-effective projects.
Guess they haven't had time to update it for the past year. Still, it all seems a bit creepy.

More here.