Courting the absurd

Pub date July 31, 2007
WriterG.W. Schulz

Click here to read about how the mainstream press fumbled on the Cal/OSHA probes


It didn’t matter how soon paramedics arrived. Kevin Noah, a 42-year-old carpenter with three sons, had no chance. The accidental 50-foot plunge from his perch on the Golden Gate Bridge killed him immediately.

Noah’s dizzyingly high station was a mere cross section of rebar — the slender iron braids that are often seen protruding from construction sites and provide a structure with skeletal support — inside an anchorage house located on a landbound portion of the bridge’s southern end.

Moments before on that August 2002 morning, Noah had been performing his normal duties, receiving planks of wood from another worker for use in forming a temporary frame to contain a wall of fresh concrete. The bridge was a year into phase two of its multimillion-dollar retrofit, which today is nearly complete.

Suddenly, the clip on Noah’s brace slid off the edge of an open-ended piece of rebar, and a nearby worker looked up just in time to see Noah’s body collide with the extended boom of an industrial cherry picker before falling the rest of the way to the ground, according to an account in public workplace-safety records.

In February 2003, Cal/OSHA, of California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, concluded its investigation and penalized the retrofit’s prime contractor, joint venture Shimmick-Obayashi, for, among other things, allegedly failing to properly rig Noah’s fall protection and not providing workers with scaffolding to stand on in construction areas where the footing was less than 20 inches wide. Fines for the violations — three of them designated by the agency as serious — totaled more than $26,000.

But Shimmick-Obayashi wouldn’t pay a dime.

The outfit immediately turned to the Cal/OSHA Appeals Board, and since such cases are backlogged statewide, the matter didn’t reach an administrative judge until this year, when attorneys for Shimmick-Obayashi presented a peculiar defense. Cal/OSHA, they argued, sent the company citations through the mail that failed to list the full legal name of the company: the mailings were addressed to Shimmick-Obayashi instead of Shimmick Construction Company, Inc./Obayashi Corporation, Joint Venture.

The misstatement was akin to a cop failing to note "Esq." or "Jr." on a parking ticket. Cal/OSHA pleaded with the judge, Barbara Steinhardt-Carter, that "it is against civil law, board precedent, and public policy to dismiss this matter based on a minor technical fault that misled no one and caused no prejudice."

Steinhardt-Carter, however, bought the company’s claim and ruled earlier this year that Shimmick-Obayashi was liable for none of the fines, even though Cal/OSHA got the name it used from the company’s business cards.

Throughout a three-year period during which the parties exchanged memos, motions, and discovery material, the contractor’s lawyers never mentioned a problem with the original citations, Cal/OSHA spokesperson Dean Fryer told the Guardian, and variations of the name Shimmick-Obayashi appear on several court documents. The move was a last-minute Hail Mary by a cunning industry lawyer who represents several major players in the business. And it worked.

"The outcome of this case is really surprising and disappointing to our staff," Fryer said. "They went through a long and thorough investigative process, and their work is now basically disposed of."

That Shimmick-Obayashi attorney, Robert D. Peterson, knows more about workplace-safety laws than most. He literally wrote the Cal/OSHA handbook commonly used by employers today and served as chief counsel to the appeals board until 1978. That’s when he established his own law firm and began representing large-scale employers in occupational-safety and workers’ compensation proceedings.

"The bottom line is, if the division has a responsibility to identify correctly the employer that it’s alleging created a violation of a safety order [and] it doesn’t do that, then the citation won’t stand the light of day," Peterson told the Guardian. "Apparently, they didn’t do that. It’s a pretty simple thing to do."

Mammoth civil engineering concerns commonly form temporary partnerships, as several have done to bid on the half-dozen Bay Area bridge retrofit projects initiated by the state at a cost of billions of dollars since the Loma Prieta earthquake rattled the coastline in 1989.

Shimmick-Obayashi won its $122 million phase two contract in 2001 to replace the Golden Gate Bridge’s steel support towers and reinforce its pylons. That came after phase one more than doubled in cost to $71 million by the time it was completed that year under another contractor. All told, Shimmick-Obayashi will earn more than $150 million following a series of change orders, a spokesperson for the bridge agency told us.

The joint venture’s initial bid beat out those of four other firms, including the politically well-connected Tutor-Saliba Corp., which later earned $760 million in a partnership with two other companies to reinforce the Richmond–<\d>San Rafael Bridge. We’ve previously reported on the dozens of injuries and the three deaths that have occurred during that project (see "Lessons from the Bridge," 11/14/06).

Obayashi on its own has had a string of run-ins with Cal/OSHA in recent years. Last March regulators hit its local housing construction subsidiary with $27,000 in fines for allegedly failing to maintain proper railings at a site in downtown Oakland, according to a federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration database analysis. The company is currently fighting those penalties. In February it was fined $6,400 for an alleged lack of railings at a project in the Bayview. Overall, the company has $60,475 in statewide open Cal/OSHA penalty cases dating to 2005.

Shimmick’s cases are few since 2000, but in the middle of last year, Cal/OSHA issued the firm two serious citations totaling $36,000 in fines after an aerial lift carrying an ironworker reportedly fell off a 34-inch light-rail platform during construction of the Muni’s T Third line, "ejecting the employee into the fast lane of traffic." The 52-year-old man was taken to San Francisco General Hospital with a serious skull fracture. A safety director for Shimmick, Ike Riser, argued that despite the accident, Shimmick has one of the best safety programs in the state.

The incentive to keep even small settlements from blemishing a safety record is huge for contractors because they can lead to the escalation of insurance rates and make bidders less competitive. Cal/OSHA’s Fryer said that while Shimmick and Obayashi have faced serious recent incidents, together they have had relatively few problems on the Golden Gate Bridge.

"It doesn’t appear with the joint venture that there is really a pattern of concern," he said. "It’s just that this specific incident resulted in the fatality of a worker, when it could have been prevented."

Noah’s mother, Sandra, told us that her son began doing carpentry at age 16 and always preferred working on big jobs. She was unaware of the ruling until we reached her, long after Cal/OSHA first cited the contractor, but she believes Shimmick-Obayashi deserved the penalties.

"To leave three sons behind," she said, "that’s the real tragedy."<\!s>*