Saturday, April 5, 2008 | 2 a.m.
With tensions over construction worker deaths along the Strip surfacing, about 200 ironworkers filled their union hall Friday night to discuss how to improve workplace safety.
By meeting’s end, there was general agreement among union stewards that they would now participate in conferences between state safety inspectors and contractors when safety violations are discussed in the wake of workplace fatalities.
Such meetings — when contractors can challenge violations and get them reduced or removed — are open to union representatives, but in the nine Strip construction deaths over the past 16 months, unions have not attended a single one, a Sun investigation found.
Much of the discussion during the 90-minute closed meeting, according to some who attended, hammered on a theme that the ironworkers take more personal responsibility for one another’s safety.
There was reportedly little talk about whether the union should more aggressively go after contractors and the Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration to improve work site safety.
And the lack of that focus upset the sister of one ironworker who died when he fell through a hole in temporary decking at CityCenter that state safety inspectors said should not have existed.
“I was disappointed,” said Monique Cole, sister of Harold Billingsley, the worker who fell. “I expected them to talk about how they were going to support changes in safety, and they really didn’t discuss OSHA or management. That wasn’t dealt with.”
Relatives of two other ironworkers who have died on the job were invited inside the union hall and couldn’t be reached later for comment.
The outpouring of membership — the regular monthly meeting was among the most heavily attended in memory, the Sun was told — was triggered by a rift among veteran workers over whether union leadership has dealt aggressively enough with contractors on safety violations at work sites.
Family members of the three dead ironworkers have expressed outrage over remarks by Chuck Lenhart, Las Vegas business agent for the Los Angeles-based Ironworkers Union Local 433, to them and the Sun that the workers’ own mistakes, rather than contractors’ shortcuts, led to their deaths.
At the meeting, Lenhart reportedly said his comments were taken out of context. The president of the local, Robbie Hunter, strongly admonished workers to not talk to news reporters, workers said later.
One ironworker said he considered Hunter’s directive as nothing less than a threat that could cost him his job or worse if he crossed union leadership.
With the deaths of Billingsley, David Rabun Jr. and Norvin Tsosie, Local 433 has taken the biggest hit among the unions engaged in Strip construction work. Over the past 16 months, nine construction workers have died on Strip projects, eclipsing the number of deaths that occurred during the Strip construction boom of the 1990s.
Construction safety experts told the Sun the deaths and the related safety violations suggest contractors aren’t taking sufficient precautions and that Nevada OSHA is not forcefully upholding safety laws.
A Sun investigation found that the agency watered down or entirely withdrew its citations against contractors after meeting with them, and that trade unions were not aggressively advocating for worker safety, including by not representing workers’ interests when OSHA inspectors meet with contractors in the wake of fatalities.
The decision now to attend the citation conferences brought some relief to Cole. “I wanted some commitment from the union to get more involved in those informal conferences,” she said.