Press misses out on Cal/OSHA probes

Pub date August 1, 2007
WriterG.W. Schulz

A near-fatal tragedy in Nob Hill last March briefly grabbed headlines when emergency personnel had to help free two workers from compressed debris after the wall of a garage collapsed around them.

Two other laborers escaped serious injury, but brothers 23-year-old Roberto Galiano and 41-year-old Maximiliano Galiano were buried up to their waist and knees respectively (one had to be extricated by the fire department). All four were taken to San Francisco General Hospital.

The vacant three-story apartment building on California Street where they were working had been awaiting renovation since a 2006 fire, and the four workers were doing foundation work with a jackhammer in a confined corner of the garage.

The accident made for great spot news, of course, and the Chronicle, the Examiner, KTVU and KPIX all posted brief stories on it immediately. They were each sure to note that California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (known better as Cal/OSHA) was probing the incident.

None of them followed up, however – which is not uncommon when occupational safety violations are handed out to employers long after cameras have departed from the scene. And the story points to one of the great failures of news media coverage of workplace safety issues.

Two months after the Nob Hill accident, Cal/OSHA fined Pacifica-based Doré Construction $13,000 for among other things allegedly failing to provide an adequate protective system to prevent the cave-in, i.e. not shoring up the garage’s walls properly, according to public records we obtained. The company was also fined for not having an expert on-site to regularly inspect the garage and ensure it wasn’t susceptible to collapse as they worked. Building inspection records show that the excavation work was being performed without a shoring permit.

Doré had been hired by the building’s owner in August of 2006 to do more than half-a-million dollars in rehab work to the structure.

The contractor immediately appealed the fines from Cal/OSHA, and since such cases are backlogged across the state, it could be years before the public actually sees the results. (Anthony Doré, owner of the construction company, told us he needed to contact his lawyer before answering questions, but we never heard back from him.)

Limited reporting on workplace safety incidents produces a fractured view of the regulatory system surrounding occupational hazards. While headlines that do get around to revealing Cal/OSHA fines after an investigation is complete lend a sense of finality to an accident, employers routinely appeal the fines, and with no follow-ups from reporters, the public is often blithely unaware of what employers actually end up paying.

Last year we reported on the fatality of an ironworker named Miguel Rodriquez at the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, which at that time was undergoing a $760 million retrofit (see “Lessons from the bridge,” 11/14/2006).

Again the initial accident was reported by several local outlets, along with the subsequent announcement of an investigation by Cal/OSHA, but the larger picture of what took place that day and what the contractor ultimately paid for the fines turned out to be far more interesting.

Rodriguez was killed in 2004 after another worker lowered an 1,800-pound steel frame from a height of 80 feet using a pneumatic winch that had gone out of production in the 1940s, according to an account in public records. The winch’s brake slipped, sending the frame crashing into a wood platform on which Rodriquez was standing. He was bounced into the air and sent through the hole created by the load, first hitting his head before dropping to the waves below.

While capturing the full story would have required a little digging, its breadth appeared later in publicly available civil-court depositions that lucidly described the accident.

Cal/OSHA eventually fined the prime contractor on the bridge, Tutor-Saliba/Koch/Tidewater, $18,000, alleging that the worker operating the winch wasn’t properly trained and was only using its brake to control the winch when it should have also been in gear. But public records today show that the joint venture appealed the decision and was later required by an administrative judge to pay just $300 of the fine.

The judge, Bref French, ruled in May of this year that indeed the winch’s operator had not been given proper instruction on the machinery as required by law, according to court records. But, French countered that Cal/OSHA had not proved Tutor-Saliba was aware that the training failure would almost undoubtedly result in serious physical harm or death, a key legal threshold that changed the nature of the penalties dramatically.

“The evidence must, at a minimum, show the types of injuries that would more likely than not result from the violative conditions,” French wrote.

This week, we reported on a carpenter named Kevin Noah who accidentally fell to his death from the Golden Gate Bridge while working on a multimillion-dollar retrofit project there in 2002. Brief news reports in the Chron announced the tragedy including a follow up that explained how Shimmick-Obayashi was fined $26,000 by Cal/OSHA.

Shimmick-Obayashi, however, never actually had to pay a thing, because as we reported, four years after the accident, a judge ruled on appeal that Cal/OSHA had not printed the contractor’s full legal name on the original citations. The judge, Barbara Steinhardt-Carter, dismissed the penalties without ever considering the merits of the case.