Friday, May 23, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
Responding to pleas from the Ironworkers Union following deaths on the Las Vegas Strip, Nevada workplace safety regulators appear close to what could be a significant change to improve safety in high-rise construction, according to several people involved.
The state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration this week asked for and received the support of major contractors to begin enforcing a requirement to provide safety netting or temporary flooring to catch workers who fall. The safety flooring or netting would have broken the plunge of several workers whose deaths the Sun documented in March.
OSHA said it has not reached a decision. “A request has been made ... Nevada OSHA is considering the request,” OSHA spokeswoman Elisabeth Shurtleff said in an e-mail.
Those involved in conversations with the agency about the safety provision say they expect a final decision soon.
Ten workers have died in construction accidents on the Las Vegas Strip in the past 18 months, including Harold Billingsley, who has become a symbol for ironworkers of a tragedy that might have been avoided had contractors put safety flooring below employees.
Billingsley fell through a hole in decking at CityCenter in October and plunged 59 feet.
After the Sun’s report on the deaths, Chuck Lenhart, Las Vegas business agent for Ironworkers Local 433, asked Nevada OSHA to require the safety flooring. “We’ve pointed out the flaws and now we want them to take actions to correct them,” Lenhart said.
The International Ironworkers Union has also become involved, meeting with representatives of the federal Labor Department and Congress.
Federal safety laws have long stated that contractors must provide temporary flooring or netting 30 feet or two floors below employees working in steel erection. That rule stayed on the books even after years of negotiations by industry and labor representatives led to new federal steel erection standards in 2001.
But one year later, federal OSHA issued a directive interpreting the safety flooring rule. The directive told contractors the agency would not enforce the requirement for netting or flooring if employers required workers to wear safety harnesses, which are attached to cables that workers tie off from above. The agency maintains that the two precautions — safety harnesses and safety flooring — are redundant.
The Ironworkers Union saw that interpretation as a back-door way to remove an important safety standard without putting the controversial decision through the normal public review process.
The union believes the directive led to a sharp increase in union ironworker deaths nationwide in recent years.
A decision by Nevada OSHA to disregard the directive and enforce the flooring standard as written would align the state with California. That state chose to ignore the 2002 interpretation after finding it would undermine safety laws.
Under federal OSHA law, state OSHAs are required to be as effective as the federal agency. Nevada generally follows federal OSHA rules and its directives interpreting those rules. But after hearing the concerns of union representatives and speaking to contractor representatives, the state may break with that tradition.
The issue has become a passion for the families of workers who died on the Strip and for Fred Toomey, a retired ironworker and former Las Vegas business agent who says that years ago he fell 30 feet but survived because there was flooring beneath him.
Steve Holloway, executive vice president of the local chapter of Associated General Contractors, said he spoke with several of the 700 contractors that belong to his trade organization after inquiries from OSHA administrators this week. On Tuesday, Holloway relayed to OSHA that contractors would not contest the decision if OSHA wanted to start enforcing the standard.
“If there’s a chance to save even one life, we’ll support the decision of OSHA,” he said.
But he said contractors are not without qualms.
Many have chosen not to provide safety flooring because of cost, scheduling difficulties and even safety concerns, Holloway said.
The nets alone for a high-rise building can run about $80,000, and temporary flooring can be more expensive, Holloway said. Installation costs drive the price even higher. Putting those measures in place also takes time — something in short supply on the fast-paced Strip construction projects.
Holloway also noted that contractors believe safety flooring presents its own risks because it could give workers a false sense of security and make it less likely they’ll attach their personal safety harnesses, risking serious injury or death.
“The consensus (among contractors) was this was something that would help a little but not a great deal,” Holloway said. “What we said is fine, go ahead and do that if you want, but the emphasis still needs to be on tying off because if you don’t tie off and you fall 30 feet you’re probably still going to kill yourself, but you do have a better chance of surviving than if you fall 60 feet. That’s how we look at it.”
Several large Strip contractors have increased tough enforcement of safety harness requirements on their projects in recent months, Holloway said. On several occasions, workers have been ordered back to the union hall for not attaching their safety harnesses.