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Bridge welders' complaints fell through cracks

April 14, 2005 Reposted from the San Mateo County Times
By Jill Tucker

Cal-OSHA official acknowledges that claims have languished

Cal-OSHA inspectors failed to fully investigate a formal complaint made in late October alleging continued exposure of excessive manganese and other welding fumes to Bay Bridge workers.

In June, a Cal-OSHA letter to contractor KFM Joint Venture stated that workers had been exposed to similar conditions for more than a year — which contractor KFM Joint Venture knew to exist.

The second complaint in October, made by seven current and former workers, sat for about three months because of the original investigator's job reassignment, said Cal-OSHA spokesman Dean Fryer, adding that the allegations were not considered an imminent hazard.

Then, the investigation was picked up in January when a new Cal-OSHA investigator asked one of the complainants — who had since been laid off — to track down information about conditions on the job site, Fryer said.

The investigator apparently wanted more information about what type of welding the workers were doing to determine if they were using equipment known to create the excessive fumes and particulates, the spokesman said. Automated welding exposes workers to more fumes than other types of welding, Fryer said.

The complainant contacted in January didn't call back, and Cal-OSHA investigators failed to investigate further for another three months.

"We didn't try to get back to him until this month," Fryer said. He explained that an investigator left a message on the worker's voicemail April 5 — after the Oakland Tribune, a sister publication of this paper, asked Cal-OSHA acting chief Len Welsh about the complaint and three days before the paper published a story questioning the injury record on the project.

Meanwhile, Cal-OSHA inspectors have been on the new eastern span job site every week or two for nearly a year but apparently never asked, looked or climbed down holes to see what equipment the workers  were using.

"The guys were on the site throughout, but did they ever specifically look at this complaint? No, I don't think so," Fryer said.

"Would it have been diligent for us to go and take a look? Yeah, I would say most likely. Did we? No."

Cal-OSHA developed an ongoing "partnership" with KFM on the Bay Bridge project, an arrangement in which safety inspectors visit the site and advise the contractor of safety hazards. Cal-OSHA then expects hazards to be immediately addressed. The partnership also means Cal-OSHA doesn't issue formal citations when those hazards are identified.

In a June letter to Cal-OSHA, Kiewit denied that workers were consistently exposed to excessive welding fumes and particulates.

Other than the worker contacted in January and on April 5, none of those workers who filed the complaint — including some still on the job — has been contacted by Cal-OSHA since October.

The initial complainant received a call a few days after he filed the form in October, and he apparently told the Cal-OSHA inspector that the affected workers were not using automated welding machines.

Fryer said perhaps assumptions were made that problems causing excessive exposure to welders had been dealt with in June.

The October complaint, however, referred to workers known as the fit-up crew, which works on piles ahead of the welders. Fryer said it was also assumed the fit-up crew wasn't using automated welding.

Yet, according to air monitoring reports from the Bay Bridge worksite — documents available to Cal-OSHA — several of the workers complaining were not only using automated welders, but were among those exposed in 2003 and 2004 to manganese fumes exceeding Cal-OSHA standards.

The October complaint also alleged welders were exposed to hazardous ambient temperatures while  working deep in cofferdams.

Fryer said a previous complaint made on Aug. 27 was investigated on Sept. 15 at the worksite and Cal-OSHA investigators determined that proper procedures and equipment were in place to deal with the heat associated with the confined-space welding.

Meanwhile, Caltrans Director Will Kempton, when questioned about the project's injury and safety record, told reporters Friday that there were no worker health and safety complaints on the project after the March 2004 manganese complaint. He said the information came from Cal-OSHA's Welsh and John Rea, chief deputy director of California Department of Industrial Relations.

Fryer said there must have been a miscommunication or confusion about the complaints.

The workers involved in the October complaint said they are still waiting for some type of response or closure with Cal-OSHA regarding their concerns.

"I didn't get any response," said  former welding foreman Angel Leon, who was on the job for two years. "I expected (an inspector) would talk to us and go through this again like we did the first time (in June)."

Fryer said typically a letter would go out to ask those who filed a complaint if they were satisfied with the results of an investigation.

"At this point, do we need to technically send it out to close it out?" Fryer asked regarding the Bay Bridge complaint. "I don't know. That's a discussion (the inspector) is having right now."


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