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John G. Edwards

OSHA reviews Orleans probe

15 April 2008

NEVADA -- Federal officials are trying to determine whether Nevada officials mishandled an investigation of a sewer system accident that killed two men at The Orleans last year.

Richard Terrill, acting regional administrator of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, on Monday confirmed that the federal agency is looking into Nevada OSHA's handling of the accident investigation. The review, which was spurred by a complaint filed by the mother of one of the victims, stems from a fatal accident that occurred when a maintenance crew was called to unclog a pipe in a sewer pit at The Orleans in February 2007.

Outside contractors had handled such problems in the past.

Stinking fumes were leaking into the air when Richard Luzier, 48, a married father of two, climbed into the sewer pit despite warnings from co-workers.

Luzier fell face first into the wastewater at the bottom of the pit and Travis Koehler, 26, a new journeyman engineer, jumped into the hole to save him. Both men died inside the sewer pit.

A third man, David Snow, 30, who entered the pit to help the workers, was rescued by the Clark County Fire Department.

Some witnesses said supervisors ordered Koehler and Snow to enter the pit.

State officials in August fined Boyd Gaming Corp. $185,000 for nine safety violations, but Debi Koehler-Fergen, the mother of Travis Koehler wasn't satisfied.

She called the fine mere pocket change to the large casino company. She said the company should have been cited for "willful" violations of safety rules and that the supervisors should be prosecuted criminally.

Koehler-Fergen said the lead investigator for the Nevada OSHA joined in filing the complaint. She declined to identify the lead investigator, who she said now works for another state.

Federal and state officials also refused to identify who signed the complaint, citing government rules.

Boyd Gaming spokesman Rob Stillwell said the company was upset by the new review because it was forcing the company to have to "relive the tragedy." Stillwell said the Nevada agency's findings were reported earlier.

Koehler-Fergen, however, said a federal investigation into the incident is necessary.

"After you called this afternoon, I was shaking. Yes, I'm angry. My son and I were very, very close," she said. "But if this (complaint) makes a difference, that will make it worth it to me."

Koehler-Fergen said Nevada OSHA generally imposes small fines on casino companies and large construction companies that have job site fatalities, giving corporations little incentive to comply with safety rules.

If the state's worker safety agency took tough action, "then maybe people wouldn't be dying all the time," she said.

"Obviously, this is just a widespread problem, and I encourage everybody to file a complaint," Koehler-Fergen said.

State spokeswoman Elisabeth Shurtleff said in an e-mail: "Nevada OSHA cannot comment on open investigations."

Nevada OSHA, however, released a March 2007 memo in which investigator John Olaechea said "willful citations are appropriate" in The Orleans sewer accident.

"A higher management official was aware of an OSHA standard or law applicable to the company's business but made little or no effort to communicate the requirement to lower level supervisors and employees," Olaechea wrote.

The state investigator said Boyd Gaming corporate risk manager Don Barker showed "indifference" about worker safety.

Barker, however, said his superiors at Boyd prevented him from following safety regulations, according to Olaechea.

"During a conversation with Don Barker, he claimed that he was unable to correct the confined spaces issue due to interference from upper level management within Boyd and at The Orleans," Olaechea said in the report.

Terrill said the federal review is focused on the state's administration of OSHA rules, not on whether or not the casino was in compliance with safety rules. The federal agency is "investigating to see if the state followed their appropriate procedures," Terrill said.

Nevada is among 26 states that adopted their own worker safety regulations and received federal approval for standards that were at least as stringent as the federal government's, Terrill said.

Terrill expects the San Francisco regional OSHA office to complete its review within a few weeks. At that time, the federal occupational safety division may make recommendations to Nevada OSHA, but Terrill declined to discuss other potential action.

Koehler-Fergen fears federal officials won't take strong action.

"If the federal level does not come down and clean office (in Nevada)," she said, "then they are just as guilty (as Nevada officials)."

John G. Edwards
John G. Edwards