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Joan Whitely

Luxor to install new safety barriers

1 June 2009

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- The question starts out like a light bulb joke, but it's no laughing matter to Henderson retiree Al Gualtier: How many light bulbs will it take before someone suffers a serious indoor fall at the Luxor, where Gualtier worked until mid-2008?

Even after federal OSHA forced Nevada OSHA to re-examine the fall hazard at the Strip hotel, the state agency decided it could not require the property to install a safety railing on rarely used catwalks.

But Gualtier, 58, who started at the Luxor when it opened, believes that any catwalk -- by definition, a place for walking -- ought to have safety rails whether it is used often or not.

Happily, the Luxor's owner, MGM-Mirage, agrees with Gualtier.

Gates and rails have not yet been installed, an MGM-Mirage spokesman said Friday afternoon. But the Luxor ordered their fabrication several weeks ago, about the time of state OSHA's second Luxor visit.

The safety barriers will be installed "within days ... as soon as possible," spokesman Gordon Absher said. He learned from the Review-Journal that federal OSHA had triggered the second visit.

For the 15 years Gualtier worked in maintenance at the Luxor, changing burned-out bulbs was one of his responsibilities. He dreaded changing bulbs in two ultra-specific locations. Each one, located on the ceiling at the top level of an emergency stairwell, requires a worker to set up a stepladder on a narrow catwalk with no safety rail or lip, and then hope he doesn't lose his balance or cause the ladder to shift.

That's because if a worker falls, there is no barrier to keep him from slipping through the gap between the catwalk and the nearest wall. And if he did that, he might well slide down 26 stories, along the diagonal wall that helps form an internal pyramid within the hotel's larger, external pyramid shape. On the other hand, a hapless worker might not slide all the way down, if he got hung up by one of the occasional wall braces.

On the several occasions when Gualtier accidentally dropped a hand tool while working on a stairwell catwalk -- most of which do have safety rails -- he has said he could hear it clattering as it fell along the slanted wall, down to the bottom of the stairwell, where he would go to retrieve the tool.

A person could not survive a similar mishap, Gualtier reasoned. So, after retiring from the Luxor in spring 2008 -- under management pressure, he admits, due to a personal conflict with another employee -- Gualtier in autumn 2008 anonymously reported the lack of railings to Nevada OSHA, the state's Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The state agency investigated the Luxor in October, but closed the file five days later without requiring any action. A Nov. 4, 2008, OSHA report reads, "After interviewing employees (in affected trades) ... none could recall anyone working in this area for several years. Based on no recent exposure to this area, no citations will be issued."

The outcome shocked Gualtier, who estimates he had to use the dangerous catwalks about 12 to 15 times in his 15 years at the hotel, to change either bulbs or ballasts for the fluorescent lights.

"You show me the fluorescent light bulb that stays lit for 15 years," he says. "I want to buy some for my house."

Further, a worker could lose his balance if "zapped" while working on the lights involved, the retiree maintains. Due to the lack of a cut-off switch, electricity can't be cut to just one fixture without darkening the entire stairwell, which has to stay lit for emergencies.

Dissatisfied with state OSHA, Gualtier went up the ladder, figuratively, to complain to federal OSHA. It ordered the state agency to do the investigation again, and this time to interview union stewards, too.

But Nevada OSHA simply classifies its subsequent March Luxor inspection as a "follow up," with no reference to any federal intervention.

Nor did it initially share the federal OSHA paperwork -- known as a CASPA, or "complaint about state program administration" -- when the Review-Journal requested all records about the Luxor's catwalk inspections.

"CASPAs are not maintained in the inspection file but maintained in a separate file," is the reason spokeswoman Elisabeth Shurtleff gave for not giving it out originally.

Nevada OSHA's second look at the catwalks, in late March, ended the same as the first. Since no one knew of any catwalk use in the last six months, no citation or rails were required.

Its April 2 report concludes that "in the event an employee needs to access the catwalk, a hazard assessment would have to be conducted prior," and the employee will be given "protective measures."

Supervisors never gave Gualtier safety gear, he claims. But the April 2 report contains proof of recent Luxor employee training on preventing falls.

Gualtier also worried that nonemployees might try the unprotected catwalks. It doesn't take any climbing, just an impulsive hop over the waist-high rail of a stair landing. That may explain why graffiti was visible Friday morning on the 27th floor, in a far stairwell corner that is accessible only by catwalk.

When the Review-Journal told the state agency about the graffiti, Shurtleff e-mailed back, "OSHA cannot guarantee that anyone determined to enter an area will not do so. ... A disgruntled employee who may enter the catwalk area to 'tag' would not be reasonably foreseeable by OSHA or the employer."

Gaultier says he didn't voice his concern until after he left Luxor's employ, and his retirement benefits had started. He feared complaining on the job would brand him a troublemaker, both with hotel bosses and his union, Local 501 of the International Union of Operating Engineers.

The April 2 report contains comments from three trades that would be less likely to access the catwalks, but none from Local 501.

The Luxor became an MGM-Mirage property in 2005.