Rep. Stewart pushing worker safety bills

News release from Jobs With Justice of East Tennessee:
Rep. Mike Stewart (D., Nashville) has introduced legislation designed to bring greater worker safety to the construction sites in Tennessee. Stewart plans to present this legislation for action before the Consumer and Human Resources subcommittee of the Tennessee House of Representatives on Wednesday, March 5, 10:30 a.m., LP 30, in Nashville.

Sen. Charlotte Burks (D, Monterey) has introduced companion legislation in the Senate.

“The frequency of fatal and serious injuries to construction workers in Tennessee far exceeds the national average,” Stewart said. “These deaths and injuries result in permanent loss and suffering for the families of these construction workers. In all too many instances the incidents were entirely preventable if worker safety was a day-to-day reality on these job sites. Sadly, in far too many instances, that has not been the case. My bills, if approved, would make a big difference in favor of worker safety.”

The first bill, HB 2017, provides new authority to the administrator of the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration (TOSHA) to require that contractors who appeal citations or penalties for serious, willful or repeat violations must remedy unsafe working conditions right away, no longer gaining an automatic extension until the end of all appeals. Today, unsafe working conditions can be maintained for many months, if not years, while the appeals process runs its course.

“We cannot afford to risk additional fatalities or serious injuries while a recognized unsafe situation posing a serious risk is permitted to remain uncorrected,” Stewart said. “Under the current rule TOSHA officials are often forced to settle for reduced penalties as the cost of assuring a speedy fix. This makes no sense.”

The second bill, HB 2018, creates a comprehensive system of safety on public works projects by identifying contractors with unacceptable worker safety records and barring the award of new publicly-funded construction contracts to these companies with a proven record of unsafe working conditions and performance. This new screening process will also appropriately credit companies whose commitment to safety is shown by past performance as well as by the systems they have in place for managing projects, training personnel, and preventing unnecessary injuries and deaths.

“The need for this legislation to keep unsafe contractors off the public payroll has been starkly revealed by major bridge reconstruction projects in Knoxville, Memphis, Marion County and closer-by in Gallatin,” Stewart said. “We cannot look away when our neighbors and friends working on these projects, as well as the general public, are put at grave risk by these cowboy contractors.”

Stewart cited the record of fatalities associated with Britton Bridge LLC of Mt. Juliet, Tennessee and a family of closely affiliated companies as justification for passage of HB 2017 and HB 2018.

· Rene Mendez was a construction worker on the Wolf River Bridge renovation in Memphis and an employee of Mountain States Contractors, an affiliate of Britton Bridge, was swept to his death when a pile-driving “hammer” came loose from a crane, struck Mendez, and carried him down into 20 feet of water where he drowned. The malfunctioning crane was owned by Britton Bridge and the company had failed to perform the required annual inspection of the crane. TOSHA found this to be a serious violation.

· John Womac died in January 2011 on the Henley Street Bridge project in Knoxville after being struck by the arm of a track hoe. TOSHA found that the driver of the track hoe had not been adequately trained about controls and practices that could have prevented the accident. The TOSHA inspector noted “weak” safety training by Britton Bridge and failure to follow through on its own safety programs.

· Solín Estrada-Jimenez also died on the Henley Street Bridge in May 2011 when a large piece of unsecured concrete debris was knocked from the bridge by a crane and landed on Estrada-Jimenez who was underneath the bridge on a work barge. TOSHA noted that Britton Bridge had not taken required precautions to prevent falling debris or to keep workers from entering hazardous areas.

· Abimael Contreras died in March 2012 on the Highway 41 Bridge project, also managed by Britton Bridge, across Nickajack Lake outside of Chattanooga. Contreras was walking from one barge to another across an open gap with no required gangplank, guardrails, or other protection. A lanyard around Contreras’ neck caught on a post, he lost his balance, fell into the water, and was dragged to his death by his heavy tool belt. TOSHA found that lack of training in proper use of life belts and failure to provide a safe walkway were serious safety violations.

· Finally, in May 2013, a construction crane operated by Mountain States Contractors, the Britton Bridge affiliate, collapsed on a bridge project on Highway 109 in Gallatin. The crane crashed on to a private car driving by the job site. Two passengers in the car, although hospitalized, narrowly escaped serious and perhaps fatal injuries. Inspections revealed that the cable on the construction crane had been identified as needing replacement. That maintenance work was never done by Mountain States even though the new cable had been brought to the job site.

· It was later revealed that in December 2005 another worker was killed on a Mountain States Contractors’ job site in Nashville when a retaining wall collapsed and buried a worker alive.

“This is a shocking record of callous disregard for the health and safety of the men and women who perform this demanding work that benefits all of us,” Stewart said. “We need a system in place that will weed out these bad apples—like Britton Bridge and Mountain States Contractors—from major public contracts in order to stop preventable serious injuries and fatalities to the hardworking people helping build our state. HB 2017 and HB 2018 will accomplish that goal in a fair and responsible way.”