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October 25, 2014

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Execs, workers disagree on level of construction safety

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Steve Marcus

A study says surveys of construction executives and employees on CityCenter and other high-rise resorts found different perceptions of safety levels. Twelve workers died in an 18-month period.

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CityCenter construction workers stage a walkout outside of the entrance in June 2008. The walkout was to protest unsafe working conditions that had led to the deaths of several workers.

Beyond the Sun

Twenty-five months after CityCenter construction workers walked off the job to protest workplace fatalities and safety conditions there, researchers have confirmed what the Sun reported at the time: Crowded work sites, accelerated deadlines and other problems had combined to create an unsafe workplace.

The study was based on surveys completed by thousands of construction workers, foremen, superintendents and executives who worked on the $8.5 billion megaresort that opened in December, and the adjacent Cosmopolitan.

The findings were released Friday by the National Safety Council and published in its Journal of Safety Research.

The analysis’ bottom line: Although superintendents and executives generally felt safety measures at the time were adequate, a lower percentage of workers felt that way.

The lesson for the construction industry is that workers’ concerns need to be better addressed, said the researchers, who are affiliated with the union-backed Center for Construction Research and Training, Colorado State University and the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Construction of CityCenter, Trump International, Cosmopolitan, Fontainebleau and Palazzo was marred by the deaths of nine construction workers between the end of 2006 and March 2008, when the Las Vegas Sun began publishing a series of stories on the deaths that won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, the highest award in journalism.

In all, 12 workers would die over 18 months at the Strip job sites, also including Echelon.

Through June 2008, six workers died at City-Center and two at the Cosmopolitan.

The Sun, with stories by reporter Alexandra Berzon, editorials and other content, exposed the high death rate as well as lax enforcement of regulations and a cozy relationship between state regulators and the construction industry. The Sun coverage has been credited with improving safety conditions by, among other things, bringing greater federal oversight to Nevada’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The safety council, which credited the Sun for bringing attention to the issue, said the survey identified several issues at CityCenter in 2008, including the top three:

• “A lack of management action,” referred to by 27.8 percent of those surveyed and referring to a lack of appropriate monitoring, enforcement, or action regarding safety and an emphasis on productivity — the tight work schedule and crowded working conditions — over safety on the part of management.

• The “presence of health hazards,” which covers a variety of health-related issues such as toxic dust, lack of ventilation, issues with the heat, a lack of access to water and reasonably clean restroom facilities. This was mentioned by 13.5 percent of the respondents.

• “Unsafe procedures,” mentioned by 10.2 percent of those surveyed, which primarily focused on actions by fellow employees.

“A substantial number of workers identified a variety of hazards, which could have potential aversive effects on their health,” the study said. “The large number of workers who specifically mentioned problems with ventilation, heat, lack of water, inadequate bathrooms and toxic dust in the air led us to conclude that these health concerns were a pervasive problem on these job sites and not simply the complaints of a few workers,” the study said. “Additionally, many workers mentioned that their work areas were overcrowded, which is consistent with the survey results indicating safety problems due to interferences between different trades on the same site.”

The study noted Hispanics nationwide are more likely than other ethnicities to die or be injured in construction accidents, and said language barriers at CityCenter and Cosmopolitan contributed to safety problems.

“Many workers mentioned the language barriers between English-speaking and Spanish-speaking workers. From reviewing these responses, it became clear to us that this was an issue of great tension and, at times, hostility among the workers, which has not been properly addressed at the job sites. This is also an important issue in the construction industry at large, where ethnic disparities in safety and health outcomes for construction workers have been observed and need to be addressed.”

Saying there are more than 1,000 construction fatalities annually in the United States, the National Safety Council said the CityCenter/Cosmopolitan study and related research show:

• General contractors need to demonstrate an organizational commitment to safety and “walk the talk.”

• Training on proactive management skills should be conducted for senior and midlevel managers, engaging them more in safety.

• Supervisors should be encouraged to display constructive attitudes, actions, expectations and communications about safety.

• Employees need to be empowered to become actively involved in safety.

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