Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Behavioral Safety Out of Control and The KFM Flu

The Oakland Tribune has a series of articles about quality and safety problems with the new Bay Bridge construction project.

The first article is about the immaculate safety record of KFM Joint Venture and their lead firm Kiewit Pacific Co and addresses a problem we've discussed many times before: behavioral safety programs, or the system of giving workers awards for not reporting injuries, and penalizing them for reporting unsafe conditions and accidents. The contractor is also being investigated by the FBI for alleged management attempts to conceal widespread welding defects and overall quality concerns on the bridge project.

According to their records, the bridge project is five times safer than the average heavy construction project, "even safer than your average flower shop." But workers at the site say all is not as it seems.

The company has a "Foreman Safety incentive Program" in which they dole out $100 to $2,500 bonuses, depending on the number of worker hours logged without a recordable injury....On the Bay Bridge project, crews were given cash bonuses - bundles of two to six $100 bills in an envelope - for not having any so-called recordable injuries for about a month's worth of work.

In addition to the carrot, Kiewit also uses the stick:

At least three of the eight workers who suffered injuries requiring more than basic first aid in 2004 were suspended for up to a few days without pay. In one case, the worker's 16-member crew was suspended for a day after the man sliced his ear on a ladder after slipping on a walking surface. The management considered it a safety lapse by the entire crew, according to Cal-OSHA inspector Roy Berg.

Several welders said the combination of bonuses and discipline created a work environment that intimidated workers into minimizing injuries or simply not reporting them at all.

"I called it blood money," said one former worker who didn't want to be identified because of a pending worker's compensation claim. "You don't make people cut their own throats for it. Management's whole point was to buy us off."
But CalOSHA acting Chief Len Welsh believes the company's numbers and argues that

the combination of rewarding good safety behavior while disciplining bad is a common practice and one that he sees as effective in reducing injuries.

"They take their safety discipline very seriously," Welsh said of KFM.
Federal OSHA's chief of recordkeeping, on the other hand, says something doesn't quite smell right:

Back in Washington, D.C., OSHA's chief of recordkeeping Bob Whitmore said punishing injured workers, especially an entire crew "is outrageous."

It sounds like, "behavior-based safety out of control," he added.

That means, instead of concentrating on hazards, the company concentrates on people's behaviors, Whitmore said. That takes the focus off eliminating hazards and puts it squarely on workers to not only avoid injuries, but avoid reporting them as well.
And there's other evidence that Kiewit's recordkeeping procedures are not quite kosher. On worker was hit on the head with a piling, knocked unconscious and was bleeding from the ears. He regained consciousness and was taken to the hospital. Even though the law says that loss of consciousness is a recordable injury, the incident was never recorded by the company because they claimed he never lost consciousness and the ear was bleeding from a cut. Another worker had a piece of metal stuck in his eye and had to be taken to a clinic to have it removed, but that was also not recorded even though OSHA requires companies to record such an injury if more than irrigation or a cotton swab is needed to remove the object.

But why would companies want to cheat on their injury and illness reporting?

"With all the incentives - such as personal bonuses, worker's compensation policy savings, the ability to bid successfully on jobs - the pressure to hold these rates down is enormous," [federal OSHA's Whitmore] said.

The low injury rate reported by KFM on the Bay Bridge project could save the joint venture as much as $7 million a year on a common worker's compensation insurance policy, according to industry experts, because insurers discount premiums on companies with safe track records.

The safest company, depending on the policy, could pay half the industry average. A typical premium on big marine construction jobs could cost half of a worker's wages, which average around $30 an hour on the Bay Bridge.

Ultimately, there's no downside to cheating on the records, especially in states like California that have their own OSHA programs, Whitmore said. Even when a citation is issued, the amount of the fine - often less than $1,000 - is negligible.

"There is definitely an incentive to cheat," said one veteran industry expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of losing future contracts.

"All employers want to report no more than they have to and some are more aggressive than others about not wanting to report to OSHA," he said. "It may effect your ability to get big private contracts."

In other words: Keeping injury rates down saves money on claims and makes money in the guise of future bids.

The KFM Flu

Another article describes workers being overexposed to manganese and other welding fumes:

For about a year, Lupe Gaytan climbed up and down the 50-foot cofferdam ladders to weld inside the steel legs of the partially built Bay Bridge.

When he started, his lungs were fine, he said, referring to a piece of paper indicating he was healthy enough to be fully cleared to use a safety respirator while welding on June 19, 2003.

Today, Gaytan climbs into bed every night and straps on a mask that helps him breathe while he sleeps. The Union City man said he never had such problems before he worked on the Bay Bridge.
"I don't smoke," the 49-year-old Gaytan said. ``Now I've been diagnosed with restrictive pulmonary disease."

Gaytan and more than a dozen other current and former welders on the bridge job came forward after an Oakland Tribune report in June showing the contractor for more than a year knowingly exposed workers welding particulate and fumes, including manganese, in excess of Cal-OSHA standards. Cal-OSHA records show prime contractor KFM Joint Venture didn't tell the workers about the overexposure, require respirators or fix the problem.

Many of the welders on the bridge project were laid off after the night shift was eliminated. The Pile Drivers Union accused the company of retaliating against the workers who had complained about safety problems. The union lost the arbitration, but testimony revealed a number of shortcomings:

Welder James Krudwig testified in an arbitration hearing on March 10 that he often wore a respirator even though they weren't required, but that management sometimes lacked new filters for it.

Krudwig, who declined to comment for this story, also said in the sworn statement that ventilation was inadequate; night-crew welders would watch welding smoke and particulates float up in the cofferdams but be pushed back down by the cold night air.

Several welders testified and said in interviews that their personal air quality monitors beeped so often, they turned them off, much like apartment tenants often take the batteries out of overly finicky smoke detectors.

Worksite photos show some ventilation hoses bent double, sending fumes back on welders' heads. Other pictures show globs of residue gathering on the undersides of plastic sheets which shielded welders from rain.


One current worker said he has seen several cases of summertime pneumonia in the last two years. He and several co-workers said they feel fatigued and out of breath.

"We call it the KFM flu," the worker said, asking for anonymity for fear of losing his job.

Despite all of these problems, CalOSHA is so enamored of Kiewit that they've formed a parternship with the company, which means that instead of issuing citations for hazards, Cal-OSHA inspectors simply notify the company of problems and expect the company to fix them. The effect:

To date, Cal-OSHA has issued just one citation with a $750 fine against KFM on the Bay Bridge project for a failure to certify a crane. No other citations have been issued for safety hazards or recordkeeping violations.

By contrast, the state issued 87 citations and proposed a total of $347,000 in fines stemming from accidents and inspections on all Bay Area tollbridge work since 2001, a Tribune analysis of Cal-OSHA records shows.

The average fine was just shy of $4,000. Kiewit and its partners FCI Constructors and Manson Co. were not one of eight firms fined.

From mid-May through September last year, Cal-OSHA inspectors recorded about 60 safety problems on the work site. Several were considered "serious," meaning the hazard could result in death from falls, amputation or electrocution.

None resulted in formal violations, which could have resulted in fines against the contractor.

Given the accusations leveled by workers and the absence of any formal citations for the manganese exposure or other alleged safety problems, it begs the question as to why some of the outspoken workers are still working for KFM on the project.

"There's not a lot of work out there right now," said one welder, asking to keep his name anonymous so he could keep his job. "It's a good job, but we just think they've let us down."

Related Articles

And more about Kiewit's other subsidiaries here and here (scroll down)

For more on union responses to BS in the US and worldwide, check out Hazards.