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Injury record questioned - Nearly perfect safety reports cast doubt on accuracy

April 7, 2005 Reposted from the Oakland Tribune
  By Jill Tucker and Sean Holstege, STAFF WRITER

On paper, the new Bay Bridge construction project boasts one of the best safety records in the country for such a massive and typically dangerous undertaking.

In fact, according to those records, building the new eastern span is five times safer than the average heavy construction project - even safer than working in your average flower shop.

The agency enforcing state safety standards on the bridge work site sees no problem with those numbers.  Health and safety experts, however, say they may be too good to be true and warrant examination.

Allegations from past and current workers on the project support those concerns.

About 20 former and current welders say the contractor's nearly perfect safety record masks a work site dominated by fear of retaliation for reporting injuries. That public record also fails to reveal the cash bonuses given to crews posting clean safety records - a policy that national safety experts say creates peer pressure to conceal injuries.

With that system of safety bonuses and injury suspensions, the nearly perfect injury rates reported by contractor KFM Joint Venture are "hard to believe, and require verification,'' said Bob Whitmore, OSHA's chief of recordkeeping in Washington, D.C.

Bay Bridge workers interviewed say the contractor's safety record is whitewashed and goes hand in hand with management attempts to conceal widespread welding defects and overall quality concerns - outlined in Wednesday's Oakland Tribune and the subject of an FBI investigation.

Workers alleged in scores of interviews or in sworn statements that some supervisors suspended or fired those who complained of injuries or health issues and gave cash bonuses to crews who completed contract milestones without serious injuries.

More allegations of workplace safety problems came out in sworn testimony during arbitration hearings for a layoff dispute. The arbitrator ruled against the union in late March, saying the layoffs were executed according to contract rules.

Under oath, former welding foreman Angel Leon testified that some KFM supervisors forced workers back into the piling - over the objections of a Caltrans inspector - after an explosion cut power to the water pumps and ventilation. The confined underwater work chambers quickly can fill with water, Leon said.

"And we were upset,'' Leon said in the March 10 hearing, "but we knew that if we don't follow the orders we get retaliation or something.''

The welders say their safety allegations are bolstered by Cal-OSHA documents showing KFM knowingly exposed the workers to dangerous manganese fumes from March 2003 to at least May 2004, as first reported by the Tribune last June.

Officials with Kiewit Pacific Co., the lead firm in the KFM construction team, however, cite their nationally recognized safety policies and a proven track record on other massive construction projects - a record Cal-OSHA and national construction experts laud

.  "KFM's core belief is that every accident is preventable,'' Kiewit spokesman Tom Janssen said in a written statement responding to Oakland Tribune interview requests. The contractor's jobsite emphasis on safety includes hazard analysis, safety training and monitoring, and weekly safety meetings, the statement noted.

Indeed, there have been no deaths or catastrophic injuries on the Bay Bridge project - significant given the danger involved in such work.

But if the federal paperwork is accurate regarding other types of injuries, the Bay Bridge work would be among the safest such projects, possibly resulting in millions of dollars in worker's compensation cost savings.

The numbers are so good, the contractor's safety record and policies should either be investigated or imitated, say industry safety experts.

In 2004, with 1,091,711 hours logged by workers, KFM reported eight worker injuries requiring more than basic first aid - none of which required a worker to take time off or restrict his workload.

Anomalous figures

Nationally, a similar heavy construction project on average would see 35 to 40 such injuries in a year, with many requiring days off or job transfer, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Similar rates were reported in 2003, with six Bay Bridge workers injured over 687,737 total man-hours, two of those injuries requiring days off work and four requiring a restriction of duty.

The acting chief of Cal-OSHA, Len Welsh, after reviewing the KFM numbers upon Tribune request, admitted they are surprising, but said he's willing to believe them based on the contractor's response to site inspections and its overall commitment to safety.

"We think their figures are real,'' Welsh said. "I agree it's a low rate. It's particularly interesting in light of the type of work out there, which is among the most hazardous in construction.''

California is one of 26 states that operates its own health and safety agency. Cal-OSHA operates independently and with limited oversight from the federal agency.

And Cal-OSHA trusts Kiewit's commitment to safety, Welsh said.

He acknowledged the months of manganese and other welding fume exposure troubles him, but without any complaints or specific information regarding other safety issues from individual workers or union officials, Cal-OSHA can only consider the information they have.

"These unions know where to complain if they want an investigation,'' Welsh added. "If I could get allegations with details, we'd be happy to pursue them.''

On Oct. 29, 2003, welder Francisco Aguirre was hit in the head down in a piling when a pulley broke loose after a bracket weld failed. A high-tension hoist used to move three-inch-thick steel plates smacked him in the hardhat. He was bleeding from the ears, several witnesses told the Tribune.

In a pending worker's compensation appeal, Aguirre signed an official state form claiming he was hit "full force'' on his head and knocked unconscious.

Witnesses said Aguirre, who is still a welder on the project, eventually was able to climb out of the hole before he was taken for emergency medical care.

Cal-OSHA's Welsh said KFM officials did not record the incident on the 2003 federal OSHA injury report because Aguirre's injury didn't require anything beyond first aid. KFM officials said the doctor told Aguirre he was well enough to go back to work and the bleeding was from a cut, Welsh added.

According to OSHA reporting requirements, if a worker is knocked unconscious, the injury must be recorded.  Nine days earlier, on Oct. 18, 2003, according to a daily report signed by welding superintendent Terry Dupras, a worker had metal filings or other objects stuck in his eye. He was sent to a doctor off-site because the medical staff on-site was unable to "get a hold'' of the objects.

OSHA requires companies to record such an injury if more than irrigation  or a cotton swab is needed to remove the object. It's unclear what care the worker received to remove the objects, but the injury does not appear on the 2003 OSHA form.

Commitment to safety

Kiewit's corporate Web site boasts that the company is "committed to  performing work in the safest manner possible,'' and "as a result, Kiewit's safety record is consistently better than industry average.''

On a separate joint venture project on the Los Angeles-Pasadena rail line, Kiewit officials said there were no lost-time accidents during 2.5 million man-hours worked.

Joel Sandberg is a construction project manager at the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which built the Gold Line.

"Kiewit had very good statistics,'' he said. "That was the best safety experience I've ever had and you could see why when you see their committment to safety. Their numbers are remarkable, but achievable.''

On land and over water, the Bay Bridge work site is plastered with safety posters. Visitors to the sprawling dockside staging area - nicknamed Camp Kiewit - rarely wander around more than a few seconds before a KFM employee warns them to don hardhats, boots and eye wear. On marine tours, visitors are told not just to wear life vests, but to zip up.

When they get to the cofferdams - which hold back the bay waters from undersea work areas - they see railings, stairs, hazard markings and fire extinguishers in more than the usual places.

Yet corporate commitment to reducing hazards comes with constant tallies of how many injuries there are and on whose watch.

Safety records for the company's "Pacific Structures District'' show recordable injuries are tallied by project each month and over years, with detailed spreadsheets tracking how many injuries were sustained under each foreman.

The records also show details regarding the corporation's "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.

Kiewit's safety policies have the stamp of approval from the Texas-based Construction Industry Institute, said director Hans Van Winkle, adding Kiewit is among a group of construction companies enforcing safety policies leading to injury rates well below national averages.

There is no reason to doubt KFM's worker injury rate, Van Winkle said.

But Mike Wright, the director of health, safety and environment for United Steelworkers of America, has his doubts.

If workers are punished or disciplined for safety lapses after they are hurt and they are rewarded financially when they reduce or eliminate injuries reported to OSHA - as is the case on the Bay Bridge - workers won't want to tell anyone when they're injured, he said.

And such a policy would render such low injury rates "absolutely phony.''

"We've heard workers refer to this as the bloody pocket syndrome,'' Wright added, meaning workers wrap their injured hand in a rag, put it in their pocket and wait until they go home to get stitches.

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.

And they were punished for safety lapses.

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.''

Cash bonuses were not the only tactic welders described in sworn statements and interviews. They said workers who quarreled about the adequacy of safety measures - grumbling that masks, respirators or filters were forever "on order'' - got fired.

The alleged disregard for worker safety went even further, welders said.

Some supervisors over several months starting in 2003 lobbed large firecrackers at welders working in cramped steel chambers, the deafening blast injuring eardrums, welders said. The firecracker allegations were described in a March 2004 certified letter to corporate headquarters of lead KFM partner, Kiewit Pacific Co.

And in a sworn deposition in the arbitration proceedings, Bay Bridge guard shack attendant Kevin Kelley and others testified they witnessed supervisors talking about plans to get rid of "troublemakers.''

Cal-OSHA chief Welsh, however, said 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.

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.

Fear of punishment

Out of view and away from work, workers report knee problems. Achilles tendon injuries. Back pain. Heat exhaustion. Some have filed worker's compensation claims. Some never said a word for fear of getting fired or punished.

Officially, there were just 14 recordable injuries for nearly 2 million man-hours in 2003 and 2004.

For 2004, the injury rates on the Bay Bridge project are so low, a University of California, Davis health economics researcher said he would investigate and determine their legitimacy before trusting them.

"It's very unusual to have numbers that far at the extreme,'' said Paul Leigh, a professor at the university's medical school.

And yet, underreporting injuries isn't uncommon in general industry or construction, said federal OSHA's Whitmore.

"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,'' he 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.

In order to uncover recordkeeping violations, state or federal safety officials need to talk to employees, said Whitmore, adding that those employees can do so anonymously and these complaints to OSHA often yield results.

Whitmore and other OSHA officials said it's also often necessary to subpoena employee medical records to determine if the injuries required more than basic first aid or met other conditions requiring a company to record them on the Form 300.

A single citation

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.

Instead, Cal-OSHA entered into an amicable partnership with KFM on the Bay Bridge project.

That means instead of issuing citations for hazards, Cal-OSHA inspectors notify the contractor of any problems they see on site and expect management to fix them.

On large projects, it's more efficient to identify problems and have the management fix them rather than go through legal wrangling over disputed violations, said Cal-OSHA spokesman Dean Fryer.

Cal-OSHA officials pitched the partnership idea to KFM early on in the project. They were able to solidify such a relationship mid-2004.

Cal-OSHA officials said they believe the arrangement has been effective.

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.''

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