Las Vegas Sun

May 19, 2019

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Five minutes to save lives

Relative of fall victim has so much to say to House panel, so little time

George and Monique Cole

Matt Toplikar

George Cole and his wife, Monique, in front of the U.S. Capitol on Monday, are in Washington for a House committee hearing. George Cole, brother-in-law of ironworker Harold Billingsley, who was killed on the CityCenter project in October, will testify today on whether OSHA is failing to adequately enforce construction safety rules.

Hopes of Change

Las Vegas retired ironworker George Cole discussed on Monday what he planned to say at today's congressional hearing in Washington, D.C., about construction safety at Las Vegas Strip construction sites, where 12 workers have died in less than 19 months. Cole is attending the hearing with his wife, Monique, whose brother, Harold Billingsley, died in an accident last October. Billingsley fell 59 feet through a flooring hole that never should have existed at the main casino building in CityCenter. He wasn't wearing his safety harness and his employer had not placed temporary decking or netting beneath him, as state law required.

Sun Topics

As a retired ironworker and a former contractor, George Cole is usually up at 4 a.m.

And so it was that he found himself several hours before dawn Monday at a hotel across from the U.S. Capitol that wasn’t entirely to his liking and about as un-Las-Vegas-y as can be (no room service). He was practicing for a strange new role in life: testifying today before a House committee.

Cole and his wife, Monique, are in Washington to speak about construction safety, specifically the death of a family member at CityCenter last year.

Monday was a day of rehearsal. After Monique woke up, he read the testimony aloud to her, again and again. The week before they worked on handwritten draft after draft, until she finally typed a version into the computer to help out a husband who had mastered steel beams but never a keyboard.

Cole’s testimony has to be so many things: a compelling emotional appeal from a man who lost his brother-in-law in a preventable construction accident; a direct rebuke of the federal government’s policy on construction standards for steel erection; an opportunity to bring his wife’s family some closure.

Most important, it’s a chance to educate lawmakers and the public about what Cole, with 42 years of ironwork experience in Las Vegas, thinks needs to be changed to make construction safer.

A lot rides on Cole’s five once-in-a-lifetime minutes. His only previous public speaking engagements involved teaching classes to ironworker apprentices, and his only political involvement was as a representative to a state Democratic Party convention in the 1980s, where, he says, he had a very small role.

“It’s like being the last batter in the bottom of the ninth, and your team is down with the bases loaded, and you’ve got to win,” said his wife, putting finishing touches on the remarks later Monday in a conference room across from the Capitol. “George has got to win this game.”

Monique’s brother, Harold “Rusty” Billingsley, died Oct. 5 when he fell 59 feet through a flooring hole that never should have existed at the main casino building in CityCenter. He wasn’t wearing his safety harness and his employer had not placed temporary decking or netting beneath him, as state law required.

Billingsley’s death and construction safety up and down the Strip have grown as an issue since March, when the Las Vegas Sun wrote extensively about safety lapses.

Billinglsey’s death has become Exhibit One for ironworkers outraged over unsafe work sites in Las Vegas and nationwide. As the Sun wrote, Billingsley was one of 12 construction workers who have died at Strip sites in less than 19 months.

Workers say the fast pace of construction in Las Vegas leads to safety shortcuts. Cole, workers and others criticize the Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration for withdrawing citations issued to contractors for lapses that contributed to fatalities, including Billingsley’s.

“As a contractor, I’ve been out there and seen dead bodies on construction sites, but it didn’t hit home until I saw Rusty in the morgue,” Cole said. “I had never seen how much pain there is for family members.”

This month workers walked off the $9.2 billion CityCenter project in a one-day work stoppage over what they say are unsafe conditions, and out of respect for Billingsley and the five other men who have died there.

Prompted by leaders of the Ironworkers Western District Council, the Coles have also become concerned about what’s known as a federal “compliance directive” that interprets OSHA standards for safety flooring. That directive allows builders, in certain cases, to avoid providing the flooring required by OSHA law. If decking had been in place under Billingsley, Cole says, it would have broken his fall and he might have survived.

Using Billingsley’s death as an example, the Ironworkers recently persuaded Nevada OSHA to rescind that interpretation and begin following the safety flooring law.

“What killed Rusty was not having that floor decked,” Cole said, dodging groups of schoolchildren as he soaked up a view of the Capitol Monday afternoon after finishing his practicing.

“That made me mad. That made me want to do something.”

The previous time Cole was in Washington he was a “very young man” passing through on a whirlwind trip that took him from Niagara Falls to Gettysburg, he recalled.

At 64, Cole speaks deliberately, sometimes with a cigarette hanging from his mouth. He knows he needs to add emotion during the testimony. He’s working on that.

Monique, 48, is prone to breaking down, especially when she hears George speak of her brother’s death.

“When we found out about OSHA’s abatement of the fines, it opened up this huge hole in our souls, but I think this experience will finally start to heal our hearts,” Monique Cole said. “When I read the e-mail that they wanted George to testify, it was like pennies from heaven. I called my sisters and we all cried. I just felt like there was finally an opportunity for change.”

The hearing today before the Education and Labor Committee is intended to take a broad look at OSHA’s enforcement record on construction safety, focusing on Las Vegas and New York City.

“Serious questions have arisen on whether our nation’s health and safety agencies are doing enough to enforce safety standards at construction sites,” a spokesman for the committee chairman, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said in a written statement.

Nevada Rep. Shelley Berkley is not a member of the committee but plans to sit at the dais.

“Las Vegas has seen a high number of workers killed at local construction sites and I am hopeful this hearing will shine a spotlight on what must be done to better protect those who are on the job and at risk,” Berkley said. “We owe it to the families of those who have lost their lives to examine if better training, stronger safety standards or more stringent enforcement could have prevented these deaths and how we move forward on better addressing the critical issue of worker safety.”

Nevada Republican Rep. Jon Porter is not sure whether he will attend, a spokesman said. Porter met Friday with federal OSHA officials to discuss the situation in Las Vegas, the spokesman said.

For the Coles, the key has been to whittle down the many things they would like to talk about into one directed appeal. They reached that conclusion after receiving help from Steve Rank, an Ironworkers official affiliated with the union’s Western District Council who has been trying to raise awareness for years about federal OSHA’s use of compliance directives. Rank flew in from California to help edit Cole’s testimony Monday morning.

And so the topic of the safety flooring and compliance directives will make up the bulk of Cole’s testimony.

“Our whole agenda is that if this saves one life from this day forward, I think we did our part, but hopefully it saves a lot more,” Cole said.

Sun Washington correspondent Lisa Mascaro contributed to this story.

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