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Alexandra Berzon

Union demands safety upgrade

9 April 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- The Las Vegas Ironworkers Union is asking Nevada safety regulators to require contractors to provide netting or temporary flooring of the kind that could have saved two workers who fell to their deaths last year on the Strip.

Chuck Lenhart, Las Vegas-based business agent for Local 433, sent a letter to the Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Friday demanding the agency require the temporary flooring or netting. The request asks the state to ignore a 2002 federal OSHA interpretation — known as a "compliance directive" — that allows contractors to avoid the safety measures.

"Our union has strongly opposed this compliance directive on numerous occasions and demanded that OSHA rescind it," Lenhart said in the letter to Tom Czehowski, chief administrative officer of the state OSHA.

"OSHA was warned on several occasions that this specific compliance directive would result in serious injuries and death to ironworkers throughout the country," the letter said, citing stories in the Las Vegas Sun that detailed the causes of the two men's deaths and those of seven other construction workers on the Strip.

The directive at issue was written by federal OSHA as instruction to that agency's investigators. States that operate their own workplace safety departments do not have to follow the federal interpretation.

The federal directive tells OSHA officers to cease enforcement of a long-standing regulation that requires employers to place decking or netting at least two floors — and no more than 30 feet — below employees, provided the workers are required to use safety harnesses.

Czehowski told construction company safety engineers and union leaders at a meeting last month that the state agency has adopted the federal directive, according to people who were present.

Federal OSHA representatives contend that the directive simply cleans up what had become an outdated provision after the agency adopted strict new fall protection standards in 2001.

"We don't consider this less effective," said Dale Kavanaugh, an administrator for federal OSHA who has worked extensively on the standards.

Nevada OSHA did not respond Tuesday to inquiries from the Sun.

Anger over the directive has been brewing for years at the Ironworkers Western District Council, which oversees Nevada and several other states. Temporary decking or netting is the last chance to save a worker's life if a safety harness fails, the union says.

The union's fears were realized Oct. 5 when Las Vegas ironworker Harold Billingsley fell 59 feet to his death at CityCenter. Billingsley was wearing a safety harness but it was not attached to anything.

Two months later, ironworker David Rabun fell four floors down an elevator shaft at Cosmopolitan after his employer, Schuff Steel, had failed to plank floors beneath him. Rabun's safety harness was attached to a steel beam that also fell, and therefore could not save him.

Rabun and Billingsley were among nine construction workers to die in the past 16 months at Strip construction sites. The rash of deaths has shaken the local construction industry and brought new attention to Nevada OSHA's often weak enforcement of workplace safety regulations.

Lenhart's letter to Nevada OSHA represents something of a new position for the union leader. He had said previously that Billingsley died from his own tragic mistake: not having his safety harness attached. Lenhart also told a former leader of the union, Fred Toomey, that the absence of decking was not an issue in the fatality, Toomey told the Sun.

Toomey sent a letter to the union after Billingsley died demanding action. Toomey said that when he was an ironworker, he once survived a 30-foot fall because decking was in place beneath him.

Lenhart's letter to the state continues a fight that Steve Rank, a safety expert who works with the Ironworkers Western District Council, has been waging for years. Rank was on a committee of business and labor leaders that rewrote federal OSHA standards for steel erection; they took effect in 2001.

The standards that emerged from that contentious process were stronger than previous standards and required all workers doing steel erection work use safety harnesses or another personal fall protection system whenever they are more than 30 feet off the ground.

At the time of the revisions, the requirement for temporary decking was left untouched, although at one committee meeting, a contractor reportedly asked to have that requirement eliminated. Rank said other committee members reacted strongly to the request.

"We were really ticked off someone would consider repealing that provision and it was dropped like a hot potato," Rank said.

When the compliance directive was issued the next year — without industry or union consent — Rank grew angry.

"This is exactly what we told OSHA would happen," Rank said. "When you put out interpretive letters and don't maintain a tightly decked floor, you can fall distances where there's no chance of surviving."