Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Government Contractors Who Kill: Where Does The Buck Stop?

We have a problem here and almost no one seems to be doing anything about it.

Earlier this week I reported on the preventable death of Timothy Roark in a 25 foot deep trench outside of Cincinnati, OH. Roark was working for the Sunesis Construction company which was operating under a contract from the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati. It appears that Sunesis was in flagrant violation of OSHA's trenching standard.

Today I read about the preventable death of Luis Martinez in an unventilated, unmonitored manhole. Martinez worked for Utility Environmental Services of Dallas, apparently under contract with the City of Heath, Texas.

That unventilated manholes can kill shouldn't have come as too much of surprise to companies in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. Just last May, two workers in The Colony, just 40 miles from Heath, died in a similar incident.

But the main issue that I want to raise here (aside from the fact that all of these guys should be tried for corporate homicide and thrown in jail) is that both Martinez and Roark died working on projects contracted out by municipalities. The question is what responsibility public authorities have (or should have) for ensuring the safety or the projects they pay for?

Not much, according to Heath Public Safety Director Bruce Ure:
Chief Ure said that the city engineer oversees the legal regulations of the work contract. but that the city does not assume liability to monitor contract work and ensure it's carried out in compliance with Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations.
Earlier this year, I reviewed a series of articles about the Walnut Creek, CA pipeline explosion that killed five workers. Two of the contract companies, working for the East Bay Municipal Utilities District, had poor safety records, but California law does not require public agencies to request or review bidders' safety histories before awarding multimillion-dollar contracts. We've seen a lot of other companies working under government contracts who have killed their workers (here, here, here, here, and here for example).

There is someone who seems to be doing something about this problem. When Lanzo Construction was given "probation" for killing a worker in an 18 foot deep trench, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm issued an executive order barring the company from receiving any state contracts until 2013. Seems to me that more cities, counties and states should start doing the same thing. As I said before, maybe these companies shouldn't have the privilege of living off taxpayer dollars anymore. And maybe some association like the National League of Cities, the National Conference of State Legislators, the National Association of Counties and the National Governors Association the should take the lead and let these contractors know that if they don't work safely, they don't work.

The final irony of these incidents is that they both took place in states (Ohio and Texas) that have no OSHA coverage for public employees. In other words, if the city had been doing its own work, instead of contracting it out to a private contractor, the workers wouldn't even have been covered by OSHA standards.