Courting the absurd - Page 2

A bridge worker falls to his death -- and the contractor avoids all penalties on a bizarre technicality

That's when he established his own law firm and began representing large-scale employers in occupational-safety and workers' compensation proceedings.

"The bottom line is, if the division has a responsibility to identify correctly the employer that it's alleging created a violation of a safety order [and] it doesn't do that, then the citation won't stand the light of day," Peterson told the Guardian. "Apparently, they didn't do that. It's a pretty simple thing to do."

Mammoth civil engineering concerns commonly form temporary partnerships, as several have done to bid on the half-dozen Bay Area bridge retrofit projects initiated by the state at a cost of billions of dollars since the Loma Prieta earthquake rattled the coastline in 1989.

Shimmick-Obayashi won its $122 million phase two contract in 2001 to replace the Golden Gate Bridge's steel support towers and reinforce its pylons. That came after phase one more than doubled in cost to $71 million by the time it was completed that year under another contractor. All told, Shimmick-Obayashi will earn more than $150 million following a series of change orders, a spokesperson for the bridge agency told us.

The joint venture's initial bid beat out those of four other firms, including the politically well-connected Tutor-Saliba Corp., which later earned $760 million in a partnership with two other companies to reinforce the Richmond–<\d>San Rafael Bridge. We've previously reported on the dozens of injuries and the three deaths that have occurred during that project (see "Lessons from the Bridge," 11/14/06).

Obayashi on its own has had a string of run-ins with Cal/OSHA in recent years. Last March regulators hit its local housing construction subsidiary with $27,000 in fines for allegedly failing to maintain proper railings at a site in downtown Oakland, according to a federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration database analysis. The company is currently fighting those penalties. In February it was fined $6,400 for an alleged lack of railings at a project in the Bayview. Overall, the company has $60,475 in statewide open Cal/OSHA penalty cases dating to 2005.

Shimmick's cases are few since 2000, but in the middle of last year, Cal/OSHA issued the firm two serious citations totaling $36,000 in fines after an aerial lift carrying an ironworker reportedly fell off a 34-inch light-rail platform during construction of the Muni's T Third line, "ejecting the employee into the fast lane of traffic." The 52-year-old man was taken to San Francisco General Hospital with a serious skull fracture. A safety director for Shimmick, Ike Riser, argued that despite the accident, Shimmick has one of the best safety programs in the state.

The incentive to keep even small settlements from blemishing a safety record is huge for contractors because they can lead to the escalation of insurance rates and make bidders less competitive. Cal/OSHA's Fryer said that while Shimmick and Obayashi have faced serious recent incidents, together they have had relatively few problems on the Golden Gate Bridge.

"It doesn't appear with the joint venture that there is really a pattern of concern," he said. "It's just that this specific incident resulted in the fatality of a worker, when it could have been prevented."

Noah's mother, Sandra, told us that her son began doing carpentry at age 16 and always preferred working on big jobs. She was unaware of the ruling until we reached her, long after Cal/OSHA first cited the contractor, but she believes Shimmick-Obayashi deserved the penalties.

"To leave three sons behind," she said, "that's the real tragedy."<\!s>*

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