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Gaming Guru

Arnold M. Knightly
 

CityCenter construction site: Safety issues raised

7 August 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Several construction workers recently were observed drinking alcohol at nearby bars before they entered the CityCenter job site, a violation of company rules set by the general contractor.

Surprisingly, there are no state or local regulations or laws prohibiting a worker who has consumed alcohol from going to work on a construction site, state and local officials told the Review-Journal after a reporter and photographer observed 10 construction workers drinking and then returning to the job site of the massive $9.2 billion MGM Mirage project.

The significance of the issue is raised because of the 12 construction-related deaths that have occurred at Strip construction sites in the past 18 months, but the Clark County coroner's office and the Nevada Office of Safety and Health Administration refused to say whether any of the deaths were linked to alcohol or drug use, citing privacy concerns.

The Review-Journal began investigating the matter after receiving letters to the editor reporting that construction workers were seen drinking near the job site, which employs about 7,700 workers operating shifts around the clock.

One letter, from a tourist from the East Coast, said he, his wife and a couple of friends observed construction workers drinking at the bar outside the Monte Carlo sports book in May.

The tourist, who asked that his name be withheld because he is a regular visitor to the city, said three to seven workers were at the bar early each morning during his five-day stay, drinking and talking about the work day ahead.

"It was very obvious these guys were on a first-name basis with the bartenders," he said on the phone. He described the workers' clothes as clean, suggesting they had not been to the construction site yet.

Officials from Perini Building Co., the project's general contractor, on Tuesday expressed shock after being shown photographs and video of some of the workers observed by the Review-Journal. A total of 10 workers were seen drinking, and six of them were photographed walking onto the job site.

"It's real simple: We have a zero tolerance policy," said Pat Hubbs, executive vice president of field operations for Perini. "If they consume any alcohol and go on site, it's grounds for termination."

Hubbs called the workers' actions intolerable and emphasized that anyone entering the job site after consuming alcohol -- even if they are just walking through the job site to get to their cars -- is in violation of policies set by the construction company, its subcontractors and the unions.

While acknowledging that "this type of behavior has been encountered on our Las Vegas construction projects in the past," Perini said in a statement Tuesday that it is taking the newspaper's "allegations seriously" and will investigate the matter.

"We rely on trades to provide us with responsible, well-trained professionals. ... If we determine any of our policies were violated, we will take immediate and appropriate action," the statement read.

The Review-Journal did not approach or attempt to contact the workers involved.

Perini met with trade subcontractors Wednesday in an effort to identify and investigate the actions of individuals seen in the photographs.

"We have secured the full support of the unions in assisting us in this process and expected termination of the individuals who can be identified," Doug Mure, Perini Corp.'s vice president of human resources and risk management, said in a statement Wednesday.

Also present when the Review-Journal presented the photos and its findings Tuesday was Perini Chairman and CEO Craig Shaw and a representative from MGM Mirage. Representatives from the unions working on the project were not present Tuesday but were told about the findings by the newspaper.

In a statement released late Tuesday, MGM Mirage said it "remains confident in Perini Building Company's ability to operate a safe and professional work site, enforce workplace regulations and take prompt disciplinary action when appropriate."

"Perini senior management is investigating the allegations raised by the Review-Journal's report," Gordon Absher, MGM Mirage vice president of public affairs, said. "We expect their efforts will be met with cooperation from every union and subcontractor working at CityCenter."

Other than being terminated by a company or its subcontractors, there are apparently no government regulatory prohibitions against workers showing up at a construction site intoxicated, according to safety and police officials.

Because the construction sites are private property, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department spokesman Bill Castle said, DUI laws would not apply unless an intoxicated worker were to drive a vehicle or piece of construction equipment off the site.

Federal safety regulations do not directly address the issue either. Federal OSHA spokesman Roger Gayman said there are no rules prohibiting construction workers from drinking, although an employer could be cited for safety violations under OSHA's general duty clause if certain criteria are met.

The general duty clause requires employers to keep a work site free of "hazards" that could cause an injury or death if there is any feasible means to remove the threat.

A spokeswoman for Nevada OSHA, which has come under criticism by union leaders for not properly enforcing safety regulations at CityCenter and other Strip job sites, said the agency also has no regulations regarding workers consuming drugs or alcohol.

It is an "issue between the employer and employee," department spokeswoman Elisabeth Shurtleff said in an e-mail.

"If an (Nevada) OSHA inspector had a suspicion that an employee was under the influence, they would notify the employer, particularly if the employee were operating equipment."

That's not very reassuring to the Nevada Building and Construction Trades Council, which has accused the state agency of not exercising proper oversight and enforcement at local construction sites.

"Our position with OSHA has been that we just haven't seen the type of attentiveness that we think this body needs to have," trade council spokesman Steve Redlinger said.

"This is potentially, obviously very dangerous behavior, which has ramifications of hurting other people on the job site that have nothing to do with it except (they are) coming to work, trying to make an honest living playing by the rules," he said of the possibility that construction workers who have been drinking are on the job site.

Managers of the project need to take action "before anyone gets hurt," the union official said.

"If this behavior is as you explain it to me, it is unacceptable," Redlinger said. "These are issues that are handled in collective bargaining agreements with the employers. (These) actions are unacceptable and can't be tolerated."

The construction companies, however, don't have a free hand.

Perini's Shaw noted that although the contractors have policies in place to take action against workers if they have reason to suspect someone has been drinking -- say they smell alcohol on his breath -- they don't have the authority to randomly test construction workers for alcohol or drug use.

The contractors do test workers who have been involved in a workplace accident.

National statistics show that alcohol and drug use are major factors in construction site accidents.

Alcohol, drugs or both were present in 19 percent of all workplace fatalities, according to a 1998 study of toxicology reports of work-related injuries conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of the 593 toxicology reports submitted by 39 states including Nevada, alcohol was identified in 284 cases.

The Clark County Coroner's Office denied a request by the Review-Journal for the toxicology reports of the 12 construction workers who died on Strip job sites since December 2006, citing the "confidentiality of medical information contained in such reports."

The Nevada OSHA also cited confidentiality in refusing to reveal whether initial incident reports indicated whether drugs or alcohol were involved in any of the accidents, Shurtleff said.

Safety issues at the Strip construction sites have been a major topic for union, safety, government and business officials for the past several months.

The Nevada Building and Construction Trades Council led 17 affiliated unions out on a 24-hour strike of the CityCenter and nearby Cosmopolitan projects in June after negotiations on safety issues broke down between the unions, MGM Mirage and Perini.

The dispute was resolved the next day when Perini agreed to several of the unions' demands, including conducting a safety assessment of the job site and allowing union and safety officials full access to the sites.

The string of accidents and fatalities, including several construction crane accidents, also led government officials to set up a task force to take a look at what government, construction and union officials could be doing to improve safety at construction sites.

REVIEW-JOURNAL INVESTIGATION CONFIRMS TIPS

After receiving letters from readers saying there were construction workers drinking outside the CityCenter job site, the Review-Journal sent a reporter and photographer to confirm.

In one letter to a Review-Journal reporter, a tourist said that during a five-day trip to Las Vegas, he and his wife and friends saw several construction workers drinking at a bar inside the Monte Carlo every day about 5:30 a.m.

"I'm no stranger to alcohol or construction work," the letter read. "I know these guys should never have been permitted to work." Review-Journal reporter Arnold Knightly made seven trips between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. to the Harley-Davidson Cafe and Zingers, an outdoor restaurant and bar at the Hawaiian Marketplace. People who appeared to be construction workers were seen drinking outside convenience stores, outside the marketplace and inside bars.

The Review-Journal also visited the Monte Carlo but did not witness any workers drinking there.

While the majority of the workers appeared to be off duty, the reporter and photographer observed a total of 10 workers on four separate occasions returning to the job site after drinking several cocktails. Six of them were photographed or videotaped entering the job site.

On one occasion, on July 7, three workers were seen drinking a series of Jack Daniels and Pepsi or another unidentified mixed drink at the Harley-Davidson Cafe. One of the workers left the bar after drinking two drinks in approximately 30 minutes and returned to the construction site wearing a blue hard hat with "Local 433," the local iron workers union, stamped on the front.

The two other men â€" one with a white helmet with the phrase "Safety Works Here" and the other wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase "Safety Works" across the back â€" remained at the bar for 90 minutes and drank at least four more drinks before returning to the job site around 2 p.m.

CLARK COUNTY CORONER'S OFFICE STATEMENT

Whether any amounts of alcohol or drugs were present in any of the 12 construction deaths along the Strip is not public information, according to a response letter the Review-Journal received on July 24 from Clark County Coroner P. Michael Murphy.

The newspaper requested copies of the toxicology reports for the 12 incidents on July 21.

An earlier verbal request asking the office for a nonidentifying overview of the toxicology of the workers was also denied.

Citing a state attorney general's opinion from June 1982, the coroner's letter said the office "does not release such reports to persons who are not legal next-of-kin to a decedent. The reason we do not disclose these reports is to maintain the confidentiality of medical information contained in such reports."

The opinion's conclusion, which was written by then state Attorney General Richard Bryan, concedes that while "autopsy protocol is a public record," it is "not open to public inspection upon demand, because disclosure would be contrary to a strong public policy.

"While cognizant that public inspection is the rule and secrecy the exception, we can ascertain no public interest in disclosure sufficient to outweigh the public policy of confidentiality of personal medical information," Bryan wrote a year before becoming governor, though the state law says any record not specifically declared confidential by law is available for public inspection.

TEXT OF PERINI BUILDING CO.'S STATEMENT

We take our commitment to the safety of our work sites very seriously. We have strict policies in place explicitly forbidding any employee, contractor or subcontractor from working on any project if they are in any way under the influence of alcohol. Substance abuse policies are in place to allow us to exercise the right to conduct "reasonable suspicion" testing for any site worker who we have reason to believe is under the influence of alcohol. Unfortunately, this type of behavior has been encountered on our Las Vegas construction projects in the past, and has resulted in employee termination.

Obviously, individual responsibility plays a major safety role on any work site. This revelation is particularly abhorrent. It is incomprehensible how any responsible professional could engage in behavior that places not only his own life in jeopardy but the lives and safety of his fellow union members as well.

We take the Review-Journal's allegations seriously and we are investigating this matter. We rely on the trades to provide us with responsible, well-trained professionals. We have reached out to the union officials to assist us in this investigation. If we determine any of our policies were violated, we will take immediate and appropriate action.