Oregon OSHA fines Ross Island Bridge paint contractor $189,000 for safety violations that led to near-fatal accident
June 20, 2017 Worker safety
By Don McIntosh
Four months after a painter on the Ross Island Bridge fell 37 feet and landed on his own son, the state’s accident investigation is complete. Oregon OSHA found rampant safety violations on the bridge repainting project, which is overseen by the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT). And it’s issuing $189,000 in fines against non-union Minnesota-based bridge painting contractor Abhe & Svoboda. That’s the largest fine Oregon OSHA has issued since at least 2012. According to Oregon OSHA, Abhe & Svoboda knowingly and repeatedly exposed its workers to injury and death. OSHA administrator Michael Wood used his discretion to seek the maximum penalties in the case, “in order to provide a sufficient incentive” for “this large and well-resourced employer” to change its approach to safety.
According to the OSHA report, at 8:15 a.m. Feb. 8, 2017, Marco Dion Lilly, a sandblaster and painter, was working on a scaffold suspended from the underside of the Ross Island Bridge — using a compressed air hose to blow down dust, sand, paint chips and other material. The hose got stuck in a metal piece covering a gap in the scaffold, which caused him to lose his balance and fall through an unsecured 3-foot-wide ladder access opening in the scaffold. He fell 37 feet to a temporary platform below, landing on his son Christopher Montiel, who was scraping paint near the base of the ladder. After a fire department ladder rescue, both were taken to Oregon Health and Science University hospital with multiple injuries, including facial and other fractures and bleeding on the brain. The blue arrow points to the ladder access hole through which Abhe & Svoboda painter Marco Lilly fell on Feb. 8. (Image courtesy Oregon OSHA)
“In most cases this type of fall would have resulted in at least one of the two employees being a fatality,” OSHA said in its report.
Falls are the number one killer of construction workers, so OSHA rules are very strict about fall protection. But as detailed in the OSHA report, Abhe & Svoboda’s Ross Island Bridge project was ripe for a fatal accident.
OSHA found that no guardrail had been set up near the hatch to prevent Lilly’s fall. Nor was he wearing the required “personal fall arrest system” — a body harness with a lanyard that’s attached to a securely anchored safety line. In fact, no horizontal lifelines or fall protection anchors had been installed. Self-retracting lifelines had been installed at ladder access points, but employees were routinely disconnecting from them once they reached the upper level of the scaffold. Even when workers did wear and attach their harnesses, they were using — as anchor points — the aluminum braces on the bottom of the scaffold plank. Those braces weren’t rated for fall protection and would most likely have failed if a “shock load” was placed on them, such as when a person falls.
This is essentially an employer who ignored rules that we’ve had on the books for some time.” —Oregon OSHA spokesperson Aaron Corvin There was much more. Scaffolds had not been set up under the direction of a competent person qualified in scaffold erection, OSHA found, nor were they inspected for defects by a competent person before each shift, as required. According to the manufacturer’s specifications, the scaffolds were supposed to be set up with diagonal bracing for stability. None of the scaffolds had diagonal bracing.
Working 37’ above the next level, at least eight employees had been exposed to an unsecured edge and floor openings with no kind of fall protection system. Workers had been using a 14-inch-wide scaffold plank as a walkway and working surface to do scraping, sanding, blasting and painting on multiple levels. OSHA says workers aren’t supposed to climb ladders more than 35’ high without a rest platform installed part-way up, but Abhe & Svoboda didn’t install any rest platforms. In fact, workers often didn’t have ladders at all: To access some work areas, they had to climb up or down the scaffolding system itself, as well as walk (foot to foot) along the outside support of the scaffold. They also had to step over holes ranging from 3 inches to 24 or more inches. In some cases, workers would avoid holes by sidestepping along scaffold ledgers while holding onto the ledger above their head. On top of scaffold platforms employees also routinely stood on top of makeshift 20” tall wooden boxes to increase their working height.
Nearly every one of those violations had been exposing workers to the risk of injury or death — eight hours a day, five days a week, for more than a year.
“For them to have nine violations, two of them ‘willful,’ is a pretty big deal,” said Oregon OSHA spokesperson Aaron Corvin. “This is essentially an employer who ignored rules that we’ve had on the books for some time.”
In Renton, Washington, Lilly and Montiel are still at home recovering from their injuries. The accident that sidelined them could easily have been prevented.
OSHA investigators said the company’s site safety manager, Thurman London, said he knew that the scaffolding system was not set up per OSHA rules. [As we reported in our April 21 issue, London is a former federal OSHA compliance officer who was convicted of theft of government property.] Meanwhile, Abhe & Svoboda’s corporate safety manager Rick Pendleton told investigators that the company follows federal OSHA rules, but he doesn’t worry about the state-level OSHA rules because they “change too much.”
OSHA says Abhe & Svoboda remedied some of the hazards shortly after the accident. The company has been given until June 23 to remedy other violations — such as having a qualified person to construct the scaffold.
OSHA’s fines can’t undo the injuries suffered by Lilly and Martiel, but they do vindicate one labor union’s campaign to expose Abhe & Svoboda as a serial safety violator at bridge painting projects around the country. For years, the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades has tried to raise alarms about nonunion Abhe & Svoboda. Then in 2016 it sent in organizer Omar Rubi as an underground union “salt” on the Ross Island Bridge repainting project. At work underneath the bridge, Rubi and other workers witnessed and complained about serious safety lapses, but were ignored and even disciplined by company management. Rubi himself was sent home the day before the accident after telling co-workers at a company safety meeting that they have the right under federal law to talk to each other, and to government agencies, about safety concerns. A week later, he was terminated. A charge that his termination was unlawful is currently under investigation by the National Labor Relations Board.
Oregon Department of Transportation reacted to news of OSHA’s fines with an unattributed official statement: “Nothing matters more to ODOT than ensuring the safety of workers on our projects, whether they are ODOT employees or contractor employees,” the agency said.
Could OSHA’s findings lead to some loss of ODOT business for Abhe & Svoboda? ODOT spokesperson Don Hamilton said ODOT has the option to revoke or suspend a contractor from the “pre-qualified” bidder list.
“We’re going to have to take a look at the report and make some decisions about that as we go forward,” Hamilton said. “One violation is generally not sufficient to remove someone from the pre-qualification list, but we have to look at the substance of what OSHA has found here.”
Abhe & Svoboda has been fined before for safety violations in Oregon: Nearly $30,000 in 2011 for dozens of OSHA violations on the Astoria-Megler Bridge. The company was also fined $15,500 for three serious OSHA violations in Hawaii in 2012.
A Minnesota bridge-painting firm faces $189,000 in fines after two workers were injured in a fall at a jobsite in Portland, Oregon, earlier this year.
The Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued contractor Abhe & Svoboda the fines Monday (June 19) at the conclusion of an investigation into conditions on the Ross Island Bridge site after the Feb. 8 incident. Two employees, identified as father and son, were injured when the father fell from a scaffold onto the son.
Fall Protection, Scaffolding Cited
According to Oregon OSHA, the worker who fell was not wearing fall protection, and workers on the site were not correctly trained on when to employ their fall protection. The investigation, the agency says, revealed that workers on the site were told they only needed to wear harnesses when working near the edge of the scaffolding.
"Eight plus employees working on the Quick Deck were exposed to a fall of 37 feet to a lower level, due to the end of the Quick Deck and openings in the floor of the Quick Deck that were not protected by any type of fall protection system," the citation reads.
Oregon DOT, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr
The fines stem from an incident in February at the Ross Island Bridge jobsite (shown here during an earlier phase, in May 2016).
The scaffolding on the site was substandard, Oregon OSHA says, with holes in some spots that forced workers to step around them. "The person assigned to be the competent person did not correct the hazardous conditions and/or have the authority to correct these issues," the citation says.
The agency says that workers within the containment area and on the access platform were using makeshift items such as boxes and barrels to increase their working height, which is a fall hazard.
The worker-safety agency issued a total of nine violations to the firm; two were deemed “willful.”
The two "willful" violations, each of which came with a $70,000 fine, dealt with the safety of the access platform and scaffolds. One alleges that workers on the site had to climb on scaffolding and walk on the outside support in order to reach some work areas in the containment. The other says the contractor did not ensure that the scaffolding system was "constructed in accordance with the qualified person's design."
“Each and every year, falls are one of the major sources of serious injury and death in Oregon workplaces,” said Oregon OSHA administrator Michael Wood. “There is never a good reason to ignore the need to protect workers from such hazards. Yet, this employer brushed off time-tested fall protection rules that are designed to prevent injuries or deaths.”
"Abhe & Svoboda, Inc. has a very strong safety culture and the well being of each of our coworkers is of the utmost importance," the contractor said in a statement issued to PaintSquare News. "We do not agree with the findings of the OSHA Compliance Officer(s) and we believe that when this all shakes out a more realistic view of our company and more specifically the Ross Island Bridge project site will emerge. Abhe & Svoboda, Inc. will continue working every day to improve safety at this site as well as all other active and future work sites while vehemently defending itself against the citations by OSHA.
"Unfortunately for the press and your readers we do not feel these issues are best played out in the court of public opinion. There have already been too many inaccuracies and presumptions conveyed which do nothing to improve workplace safety on our sites or any other sites."
The incident came amid a campaign by the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council #5, which said it had filed a report with OSHA about safety measures at the Ross Island Bridge site just a week before the fall. Abhe & Svoboda is a non-union contractor.
At the time of the incident, a worker from the site, Omar Rubi, who is also associated with IUPAT, told PaintSquare News that he had concerns about the condition of the scaffolding, claiming that manholes were not sufficiently covered.
"The fact that OSHA fined Abhe & Svoboda the maximum penalty for this accident is a clear indication of how egregious this case is regarding safety violations," said IUPAT General Vice President Jim Williams Jr. "It was fortunate no one was killed in this accident, but if the violations found here are consistent with other job sites in the country, the workers might not be so lucky next time. The IUPAT will continue to be diligent in exposing such safety violations committed by not only Abhe & Svoboda, but for any company that puts the safety of its workers second to its bottom line."