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Nevada OSHA officials assure action

Nevada OSHA administrators vowed Friday to take corrective action in addressing 18 major findings in a U.S. Department of Labor report prompted by a slew of construction site fatalities in Las Vegas, most of them on Strip projects.

Problems cited by a federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration oversight committee include willful violations of OSHA standards, fines that were deemed too small, failure to cite repeat violations and lack of proper training for inspectors.

The massive amount of Strip development — estimated at $30 billion before some projects were scrapped — and a high turnover rate for building inspectors created the “perfect storm” for safety violations, said Steve Coffield, chief administrative officer for Nevada OSHA.

Coffield said he had two pages of major projects in the works simultaneously in 2008, including CityCenter on 65 acres with five buildings going up at the same time and a huge amount of equipment in operation. During peak construction, the project employed between 9,000 and 11,000 workers.

More than 1 million cubic yards of concrete were poured at CityCenter and 78,000 tons of steel went into building it. Crane operators had to be brought in from out of state.

“It’s astounding when you think about the effort that went into that project,” Coffield said at a legislative subcommittee hearing at the Sawyer State Building. “We had 40 inspectors in the field, but they were overwhelmed by the sheer size.”

Employers can and will be prosecuted for willful violations, but it can be extremely difficult to prove that employers knew they were violating OSHA standards, Coffield said. It often turns into a legal battle.

For example, OSHA inspectors measured a trench at 58 inches deep, two inches shy of six feet, but company engineers argued that the tape measure was set at an angle and came up with a coefficient for the slope to debunk the 58-inch measurement in the photo.

To that end, Coffield said OSHA will be reviewing the photographs more thoroughly.

“If we believe in a willful violation and we lose at the review board, we’ll take it to the Supreme Court and we have in the past and won,” Coffield said.

Also, the federal task force’s findings of companies not being cited for repeat violations are not totally accurate, the Nevada OSHA official said. One particular case involved a double fatality at The Orleans in 2007 with two or three woeful repeat violations that were negotiated down to serious when Boyd Gaming agreed to develop and implement a training program.

The finding that bothered Coffield the most was Boyd’s failure to notify the family of the deceased.

“It could be a couple of cases there was actually a letter. There’s got to be more than a letter. There’s got to be personal contact and we have worked on improving that process,” he said.

Friday’s hearing was the first step in changing the state agency’s policies, said Don Jayne, administrator of Nevada Department of Business and Industry, Division of Industrial Relations. A second meeting is scheduled for May 18 to bring recommendations for change to the subcommittee.

“The legislation moving through is stronger than in the past,” he said. “We must work together because even one work-related death is one too many.”

One of the tools for the oversight committee was a special study from July 2009 that measured duties performed by Nevada OSHA inspectors. The key component there was training of junior inspectors, Jayne said.

He estimated a 50 percent turnover rate after inspectors had gained two to three years of state-funded training. Some went into higher-paying private sector jobs; others went to work for the city or county. They all made more than the $36,000 starting salary for entry-level inspectors.

“I’ve heard of people picking up $20,000 or $30,000 to walk across the street,” Jayne said.

State Sen. Maggie Carlton, chair of the legislative subcommittee, said the state may need to look at the pay scale to keep inspectors from leaving after they’ve been trained. She also suggested calling some of the union halls to fill vacant inspectors’ positions with experienced construction workers who are out of work.

Coffield said most union workers won’t come to work for $36,000.

“It’s better than zero,” Carlton responded.

There were three bills passed during the 2009 Legislature concerning working conditions and workplace safety.

One bill requires workers and supervisory employees on a construction site to complete an approved construction safety course no longer than 15 days after being hired. Employers can be fined $500 to $70,000, depending on offense history, for employees who don’t complete the safety course.

Another bill requires a minimum of 1,000 hours of crane-related experience or training for crane operating certification, with 500 of those hours on tower crane operations if the applicant seeks tower crane certification.

A third bill sought to remove the Occupational Safety and Health Review Board from the Division of Industrial Relations, and to make the board, not the division, responsible for enforcement of occupational safety and health laws.

Contact reporter Hubble Smith at hsmith@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0491.

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