Las Vegas Sun

May 25, 2017

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Q+A: Filmmaker discusses worker safety, deaths on Strip construction sites

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Leila Navidi

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.

Nine construction workers lost their lives in workplace accidents in 16 months during the late 2000s, a period that saw more than $30 billion dollars in new building projects on the Strip.

Four of the deaths occurred at CityCenter, two at the Cosmopolitan, and one each at the Palazzo, Trump International and Fontainebleau. But they all had one thing in common: they were the result of careless violations of safety procedures by construction companies desperate to finish the projects as soon as possible.

The violations, as well as the revelation that companies secretly lobbied the Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration to lower their fines, were brought to light in an investigation by Las Vegas Sun reporter Alexandra Berzon.

Click to enlarge photo

Filmmaker Jordan Ehrlich's new documentary, "The Cost of Construction," was inspired by the Las Vegas Sun's Pulitzer Prize-winning 2009 investigation into the deaths of several construction workers on the Las Vegas Strip.

The stories sparked national attention as well as Congressional hearings, and won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

They also sparked filmmaker Jordan Ehrlich’s new documentary, the Cost of Construction, which examines the deaths and the response of federal regulators to the issue of workplace safety. In the film, Ehrlich interviews family members of the deceased, members of the Sun’s reporting team and others about deaths on the Strip and a fatal incident at the off-Strip Orleans resort, for which Boyd Gaming was cited for lax enforcement of worker safety regulations.

We talked to the 38-year-old Berkeley journalism graduate about his film, how local journalism helped shape the story, and what it means for the issue of workplace safety nationwide.

Why did you decide to make the film?

I’ve produced and written a lot of documentaries for television and otherwise, but I’ve never directed my own film from scratch. I was looking for my own project, and I had actually produced a documentary on Hank Greenspun a couple years before, so I was familiar with the Las Vegas Sun. I saw [Berzon’s] stories one after another, and it seemed like a very interesting topic that wasn’t getting the national coverage I thought it deserved. I contacted Berzon and talked her ear off and she was open to me doing a documentary about it.

Describe how you went about piecing everything together.

I spent a lot of time in Las Vegas. I took multiple trips, weeks at a time, staying at the different hotels that surrounded CityCenter and shoot video out the window or out of a helicopter or from the street.

It was an uphill battle to interview anyone besides the families of the workers who were killed. A lot of people would speak to me on the phone but off-the-record. It was hard to get anyone to sit down and talk. I contacted the construction companies and the hotel owners multiple times a couple times a year to see if they would finally go on the record. But I just had to go on knowing they wouldn’t be in the film. It’s a very controversial issue and a lot of people don’t want to ruffle any feathers.

I tried to be as fair as possible. I wasn’t trying to demonize anybody. I really wanted the higher ups and management from Boyd Gaming, Perini Construction, MGM and SME Steel to talk about what was really at stake here and the challenges they faced. At no point did I get a comment from them, which made it really difficult.

In your view, how did the reporting by media outlets influence the push to make workplaces safer?

Certainly the local reporting and Sun’s reporting was great and it achieved a level of awareness that the issue didn’t have before. But for some of the really important things like getting more [OSHA] safety standards passed, it has been a struggle.

[The media attention] goes in waves. The biggest issue is that most of the accidents that happen are small accidents around the country. On my Google Alerts I get five to 10 stories a day. A man falls, or someone gets hurt or injured. When there is a lot of construction in big cities, there certainly is more coverage.

Why isn’t workplace safety a bigger issue in America? I can’t even think of a time where the issue has come up in this entire election cycle.

Not once. If it does it comes up it’s mentioned very slightly, just in terms of deregulation and talk about the EPA and air quality. But for some reason 12 people dying every single day in America doesn’t get headlines because it doesn’t happen all at once. If 12 police officers died every day or 12 firefighters died every day it would be a national outrage. But because it’s one guy here or one guy there ... and that’s just the people who die. There are hundreds of thousands of other people who are hurt so badly that their lives are changed forever. Those don’t get headlines either.

The movie mentions that OSHA’s current workload is so high that it would take more than 100 years to inspect each worksite in the country. Why have things stayed this way?

It’s a funding thing. The idea in general is for companies to do things without the government having to look over their shoulder. The government just doesn’t have the finances, we spend so much more money in other places. Obviously our military is important, but tens and hundreds of billion dollars go to that whereas this gets very little money, even though more people die in workplace accidents than they did in the last couple of wars combined. It’s just not a sexy issue that people care about.

You can learn more about the documentary at its website, and rent or buy it here.

Editor’s note: The original version of this story could have been interpreted to suggest that several casino companies were penalized for safety violations. The story has been revised to add clarity.

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