Let’s hope walkout after CityCenter death puts safety ahead of speed

The family and friends of Dustin Tarter gathered Saturday in Boulder City to say goodbye to the 39-year-old crane oiler.

He wasn’t the most important workingman among the more than 6,000 employed on the enormous CityCenter site on May 31 when he got caught in the counterweight system of a moving crane and was crushed. Tarter was just trying to do his job. He was the sixth construction worker to die in the past 16 months at CityCenter.

Like the others, “Doobie” Tarter left behind people who loved him and a personal story of a life cut short on the job. For his part, Tarter loved to keep his pals laughing. He lived to catch big fish and adored his dog, Luna. That dog was so special, in fact, that his family listed it in Tarter’s obituary.

Set that small life and the others who went before against the background of a $9.2 billion construction project that swims in superlatives. With its 18 million square feet of public space, CityCenter is touted as the largest privately financed development in the history of the United States. It’s called one of the largest “green” development projects in the world.

It’s also financed by some of the world’s richest people. In addition to MGM Mirage, the investment entity of the Persian Gulf state of Dubai has spent nearly $5 billion to buy into the city within a city.

They call the project many things. But here’s one name no one calls it.


That’s one of the problems with promoting yourself as the best of the best. It leaves no room for excuses and no place to hide from what, by any reasonable person’s measure, is a shocking and unacceptable carnage.

The question is whether much will change following last week’s one-day walkout by workers affiliated with the Southern Nevada Building and Construction Trades Council, which quickly negotiated an agreement with general contractor Perini Building Co. for increased safety oversight.

The scale of the project poses challenges on many levels. While construction workers came running to land good-paying jobs at CityCenter, building trades officials say their knowledge of standard safety practices is inconsistent. Meanwhile, the state’s critics argue too few inspectors have roamed the construction site.

Was the Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration ill-prepared — and arguably unwilling — to levy hard scrutiny at powerful Perini?

Building trades officials have complained for weeks that, even when OSHA found safety violations, the fines were reduced or eliminated altogether. And when it’s acceptable to eliminate safety equipment such as those last-chance nets that might have saved the life of one fallen worker, there’s something wrong with the system.

Following the negotiations, and with an assist from Gov. Jim Gibbons, federal OSHA inspectors will join state inspectors to review the job site. The move appears to be unprecedented, but then so is the scale of CityCenter.

“We’re very pleased to see the governor and OSHA have finally decided it was time to get involved,” building trades consultant Steve Redlinger says. “That’s great, and we welcome them, but we needed this months ago. Why it took them so long, I don’t know. I can’t answer that. We’re happy to have them now, but we think it’s overdue.”

One concession that could pay dividends is the agreement to let the Center for Construction Research and Training conduct an on-site safety assessment. Union officials and safety inspectors will also be allowed on the job.

I’m no OSHA inspector, but I suspect the 24-hour, seven-day work schedule, the high-steel construction done at close quarters, and the shortage of experienced craftsmen are contributing factors to the safety problems.

I won’t bet they’ll slow the pace, but it’s possible that to really make a difference all the parties will have to agree to put safety ahead of breakneck speed to end the death toll that so far reads, “Mark Wescoat, Harold Billingsley, Harvey Englander, Bobby Lee Tohannie, Angel J. Hernandez, and Dustin Tarter.”

They weren’t big shots, just workingmen. Each lost his life building this latest, greatest monument to the superlative-laced Las Vegas experience.

CityCenter’s construction workers, a cynical bunch, have their own nickname for the project.

They’ve been calling it “City Cemetery” for months.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.

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