Las Vegas Sun

May 21, 2019

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Families emote, labor mobilizes

Lawmakers are urged to strengthen state OSHA after construction deaths


Tiffany Brown

Debi Fergen, testifying Wednesday in Las Vegas, tells state lawmakers that construction deaths on the Strip might have been prevented if the state had held Boyd Gaming more accountable for the death of her son Travis Koehler at the Orleans. “For that reason, I lay some of those deaths at the feet of Nevada OSHA,” Fergen said.

OSHA hearing

Union workers listen during a public forum on worker safety in Nevada during a Senate Committee on Commerce and Labor meeting at the Grant Sawyer Building in Las Vegas on Wednesday. Launch slideshow »

Sun Topics

Face to Face: Deadly Development

Union trades Boss Steve Ross talks about his deal with Perini Building Co. to help curb a rash of deaths on the CityCenter construction site. Plus, Sun reporters Alexendra Berzon and Michael Mishak detail the corners cut that could have saved lives.

Union leaders, absent from an earlier hearing, turned out in force Wednesday to urge lawmakers to protect Nevada workers with a combination of safety training and stronger enforcement of safety laws by state regulators.

The hearing before the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee was the third in a week to examine workplace safety following a string of accidents at CityCenter and other construction projects on the Strip, as well as an accident at the Orleans two years ago that killed two workers.

“One common thread in all these tragedies is the continued relaxation of fines given to those who have been found to violate safety statutes,” said Steve Ross, executive secretary-treasurer of the Southern Nevada Building and Construction Trades Council. “Why is this occurring and what can be done to fix fines so that violators are truly punished? This, we believe, is the central issue.”

The participation of Ross and other union leaders was a reversal from a hearing last week. Union leaders had conspicuously skipped that session, organized by Sen. Maggie Carlton to develop a bill that would make the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration more effective.

During last week’s hearing Carlton had sharply questioned Nevada OSHA officials about their enforcement of safety laws. She also expressed disappointment that more people — and union leaders in particular — had not shown an interest in the discussion.

On Wednesday, Ross said his failure to participate was nothing more than a mix-up. He and others had turned out Friday for an Assembly committee hearing on a building-trades-backed bill to require safety training for construction workers and their supervisors.

Ross was joined at the Grant Sawyer State Office Building in Las Vegas by other union leaders and members, County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, safety professionals, injured workers and the families of workers who have died in workplace accidents.

Among them was Debi Fergen, who repeated her son Travis Koehler’s final words before he died two years ago in a manhole at the Orleans. “I got his head up, get me a rope, I can’t do this alone,” Fergen said, her voice breaking.

Koehler had attempted to save a co-worker, who was overcome by fumes after entering the manhole to fix a pipe.

Fergen described how firefighters, using less than ideal equipment, removed her son’s “lifeless” body and another worker “from their death chamber” at the Boyd-owned Orleans. Neither worker was trained to enter those confined spaces but they were told to do so by their bosses, an OSHA investigation later found.

Fergen’s vivid description of her son’s death and the subsequent deal offered to Boyd by Nevada’s workplace safety enforcers set the tone for a hearing filled with emotional testimony.

After an extensive investigation of the Orleans accident, high-level political appointees became involved in the process and Nevada OSHA agreed to downgrade the citations from “willful” to “serious” violations, along with the accompanying fines.

“I have long said that if Nevada OSHA had held Boyd Gaming accountable to the letter in the Orleans case, it would have sent the message a lot sooner and a lot louder and maybe some of the deaths at CityCenter could have been prevented,” Fergen said. “For that reason, I lay some of those deaths at the feet of Nevada OSHA because they did not do the job the department was created to do.”

George Cole, a former ironworker contractor, described the dead body of his brother-in-law, Harold Billingsley, who died at CityCenter after falling through a hole in decking on an under-construction high-rise. Billingsley was one of 12 workers to die in a span of 18 months on the Strip.

OSHA removed all of the citations following Billingsley’s death, in what would become a pattern. More recently, Nevada OSHA has seen citations removed at a higher regulatory level, the Review Board, after failing to mount a strong defense of its case.

“The regulations that are necessary to ensure worker safety are there,” Cole said. “It is the lack of enforcement and penalties that is breaking down the workplace safety.”

OSHA officials did not attend Wednesday’s hearing.

Last week Nevada chief administrative officer Tom Czehowski said that in some cases citations were deleted because inspections were problematic, and in other cases because the employer promised to improve safety. OSHA attorney John Wiles had said “nothing inappropriate” occurred during the Orleans investigation.

Czehowski has said the department has difficulty retaining qualified inspectors because it cannot compete with private sector salaries.

Ross suggested a solution.

“Over the past few years, we believe that budget items concerning safety have been underfunded,” he said. “But we can’t help but think that if Nevada OSHA would enforce its fines more vigorously, then they would have more money.”

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