The breakneck pace of high-rise construction on Las Vegas’ famed Strip comes at a terrible price: Since the end of 2006, nine construction workers have died in workplace accidents. In a special two-part series, the Las Vegas Sun’s Alexandra Berzon explores why these deaths are happening and what the state OSHA’s response has been.
Berzon’s first article, “Pace is the new peril,” begins with the story of 46-year-old Harold Billingsley, who worked on the CityCenter development, a casino and six adjacent high-rises that together amount to the most expensive private commercial development in this country’s history:
It was here that Harold Billingsley found himself 59 feet above the ground floor, walking in his brown ironworking boots on uneven temporary decking. He was heading to pick up extra bolts for his crew, his family believes. He stumbled.
Ordinarily, he would simply have fallen onto the decking. But at this exact moment in that exact spot, the decking contained a 3-by-11-foot hole that state investigators later said should not have existed.
Ironworkers wear safety harnesses for times like this. An attached cable is supposed to stop a plunge. Billingsley’s was not attached.
Safety regulations called for a temporary floor or netting no more than two stories down, a last chance to break his fall. None existed.
The man friends called “Rusty” for his fiery red hair fell to his death.
Eight other workers died by when they fell or were struck or crushed by heavy concrete or machinery. Nevada OSHA investigators found “troubling patterns of safety violations: failure to ensure that workers are properly trained, allowing workers to use faulty equipment and leaving workers exposed to falls by not covering over or guarding gaping holes or not placing temporary planks or netting below.”
Berzon explains that until recently, casino developers built hotel projects in phases. Now, though, construction schedules are compressed, and on-site congestion, deadline pressure, inexperienced workers, and exhaustion form a dangerous combination. But even these factors needn’t add up to worker deaths; Berzon reports that safety experts for both labor and industry say that contractors should be able to “oversee fast, multitowered projects that are not only fatality-free but injury-free.”
When companies aren’t living up to that responsibility, it’s OSHA’s job to make them. In “OSHA goes easy,” though, Berzon explains that the Nevada OSHA’s performance is leaving worker safety advocates and family members of workers killed on the job feeling upset.
Nevada OSHA conducted a month-long investigation after Billingsley’s death, and wrote in their report, “With reasonable diligence the hazard could have been detected and prevented.” The agency issues three citations with fines totaling $13,500. Then Billingsley’s employer, SME Steel Contractors, met privately in an informal conference with the agency, and OSHA withdrew the citations. And this wasn’t an isolated incident:
A Sun examination of OSHA accident documents related to nine recent construction fatalities on the Strip shows that investigators found serious safety violations in the cases, but the agency often did not follow up with aggressive enforcement. Instead, after meeting privately with contractors, the agency withdrew or reduced fines.
Government and private safety experts outside of Nevada as well as the families of the accident victims told the Sun they are surprised and disturbed by OSHA’s conduct after the fatalities.
Frank Strasheim, a former regional administrator in the federal OSHA office in San Francisco, and other experts say they have seen many citations removed by federal and state OSHA offices elsewhere — but rarely in cases involving deaths.
“My rule of thumb has always been that you hold the line on a fatality,” Strasheim said. “A fatality is the worst possible thing.”
One of the factors in Nevada OSHA’s disappointing performance may be a lack of resources:
If employers contest a citation and OSHA doesn’t work out a settlement during an informal conference, the agency has to either reopen the investigation or defend the findings before a review panel. That takes time and staff — two things in short supply at Nevada OSHA.
A paucity of safety engineers in the state and nationally has made it tough for the agency to retain investigators, who are quickly lured by more lucrative jobs as on-site safety experts at construction companies, including on the Strip.
Elisabeth Shurtleff, spokeswoman for Nevada OSHA’s parent agency, the Business and Industry Department, said that for the Las Vegas area, it has 25 budgeted positions for inspectors. Five of those are vacant.
The number of inspector positions for Las Vegas did not increase from 2001 to 2007, even though the number of employees in all occupations grew by 200,000 to 927,000, and most of the agency’s funding comes from workers’ compensation assessments, not general taxes, which means employers pay the costs.
The 20 Las Vegas area inspectors make random workplace visits and inspect a site every time someone calls to complain about a possible infraction, in addition to conducting investigations of big accidents. Even if all the positions were filled, OSHA would need 27 years to pay a single visit to each workplace in the state, according to the AFL-CIO.
This story isn’t confined to Nevada, of course. But perhaps the tragedy of so many construction workers dying in one city over such a short period of time will serve as a wake-up call to officials. If not, there will be more bereaved family members, like Billingsley’s sister, Monique Cole:
Hundreds of construction workers signed a 10-foot long memorial poster for the family of Harold Billingsley after the 46-year-old ironworker plunged to his death at CityCenter last year.
Four months later, on a night in February, relatives unrolled the poster at the home of his sister, Monique Cole, and her husband. Cole placed Billingsley’s brown leather boots and sticker-covered construction helmet on the kitchen table. The family had gathered to talk to a reporter.
“It feels like they rendered my brother’s life valueless,” Cole said, crying as she recalled the Nevada OSHA conclusion that Billingsley’s employer bore no responsibility for his death. “You assume all the right things are in place until you’re faced with it.”
In the case of some of these workers’ deaths, what was literally missing was a safety net – something that should have been in place every two floors, but wasn’t. Most of us tend not to notice safety nets until we need them. OSHA’s job is to make sure the safety nets are there, so that we can all feel protected when we go to work. These missing nets are a sign that workplace safety protections aren’t strong enough.
UPDATE: Part Three, “Not in this city,” is now available, too.