OSHA PROPOSES $69,000 IN FINES AGAINST CONTRACTOR FOR ALLEGED SERIOUS HEALTH & SAFETY VIOLATIONS AT UNDERGROUND CONSTRUCTION PROJECT

April 05, 2001

OSHA has cited Slattery/Interbeton/J.F. White/Perini, J.V., a contractor on Boston's Central Artery/Tunnel Project, for alleged serious and other than serious violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act at an underground construction site. $69,000 in penalties are proposed against the contractor.

The alleged violations were discovered by OSHA during safety and health inspections of a tunnel jacking project located beneath railroad tracks leading into Boston's South Station railway terminal. OSHA initiated its inspections on December 5, 2001, as part of its ongoing monitoring of workplace safety and health on the Big Dig, said Brenda Gordon, OSHA area director for Boston and Southeastern Massachusetts.

"The health inspection found instances in which employees were overexposed to airborne concentrations of crystalline silica generated during construction and the employer failed to take necessary steps to minimize this hazard, even though its own sampling for silica showed excess silica levels," said Gordon. "The safety inspection identified several fall hazards, employees working without fall protection, electrical hazards, an impalement hazard, and inadequate protection against flying debris for equipment operators working at the tunnel's face."

Gordon explained that crystalline silica, a basic component of sand and gravel, is often generated during tunneling and other construction activities. Continued exposure to crystalline silica can lead to silicosis, a lung disease which causes scar tissue formation in the lungs that reduces their ability to extract oxygen from the air. Crystalline silica is also a known human carcinogen. OSHA standards require employers to develop and implement engineering controls to reduce exposure levels to toxic substances and, where respirators are used, to implement an effective and continuous respirator program.

"Though many of the cited hazards were addressed during the course of the inspection, it should not have taken an OSHA inspection to prompt this employer to ensure that these basic, well-known and necessary worker safeguards were in place and in use at this jobsite."

The health inspection resulted in $35,000 in proposed penalties for five alleged serious violations, for:

  • four employees were exposed to excess levels of silica-containing crystalline quartz and the employer had failed to implement feasible engineering controls to reduce those exposure levels;
  • failure to designate a qualified administrator for the worksite's respiratory protection program in that silica sampling conducted by the employer between May 1999 and December 2000 had not been correctly evaluated, respiratory protection had not been mandated, and employees' overexposure to silica went undetected;
  • failure to identify and evaluate silica as a respiratory hazard in the workplace;
  • failure to effectively evaluate the worksite's respiratory protection program to ensure its correct implementation and continued effectiveness and failure to regularly consult affected employees in order to identify and correct problems;
  • failure to instruct employees in the recognition and avoidance of unsafe conditions concerning silica and in applicable regulations and protective measures.

The safety inspection resulted in $34,000 in proposed penalties for sixteen alleged serious violations, for:

  • employees were not adequately protected against falls of up to 30 feet while climbing and working on concrete forms due to lack of a fall protection system at that location;
  • employees were exposed to falls of up to 14 feet from bays where guardrails were not installed at unprotected edges;
  • employees were exposed to a fall of 6-feet, 4-inches due to missing rails on a pipe scaffold stair tower;
  • employees were exposed to falls through unguarded or uncovered holes and an uncovered ladder opening;
  • toeboards were not installed along the edge of a mezzanine deck from which materials and equipment could fall onto employees working and walking below;
  • employees operating roadheaders at the face of the tunnel wall were not adequately protected against flying debris, such as wood splints and rock chips, due to an inadequate screen in the front of the operator's cab;
  • debris, materials and equipment were stored in front of electrical boxes, obstructing clear access;
  • a power cord was not equipped with a ground fault circuit interrupter; worn and cut extension cords were used to power equipment;
  • missing corner lights on a vehicle were not replaced before it was put in use;
  • the backup alarm on a front end loader was not distinguishable from surrounding noise level;
  • a grinder lacked a tongue guard and shield, was not secured to the floor and had excess space between its surface wheel and its work rest;
  • workers were exposed to impalement injuries from an unprotected, protruding rebar.

A serious violation is defined by OSHA as one in which there is a substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result, and the employer knew, or should have known, of the hazard.

OSHA is empowered by the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 to issue standards and rules requiring employers to provide their employees with safe and healthful workplaces and jobsites, and to assure through workplace inspections that those standards are followed.

The company has 15 working days from receipt of the citations and proposed penalties to either elect to comply with them, to request and participate in an informal conference with the OSHA area director, or to contest them before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.


TREASURY SECRETARY O'NEILL SUGGESTS NEW OSHA STANDARD

Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill suggested last week that all federal OSHA workplace safety regulations be replaced by one single requirement.

Instead of the standards, he said, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration could say that: "Within two years, every organization in the United States, public, private, nonprofits, will have a lost work day rate under 2.0, or we're going to take away your license.''

O'Neill, former head of Alcoa Inc. who gained praise from labor unions for his heavy emphasis on worker safety, said such a tough standard would quickly gain the attention of American business.

O'Neill predicted that between 95 and 98 percent of American companies would be able to meet his standard, which means 2 lost workdays every year per 100 full-time employees. He said the national average currently is about 3.5 workdays lost to injury annually per 100 employees.

Before taking over as Treasury Secretary, O'Neill said he met with outgoing Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers and questioned him about workplace safety matters. Specifically, he asked about the Treasury Department's lost workday rate. The answer, which took about three weeks to get, was 2.0 lost workdays, O'Neill said.

Workplace safety "is a subject that I spend a lot of time thinking about and working on,'' he said.


FRUITS, VEGETABLES REQUIRE CARE TO PREVENT FOOD ILLNESSES

According to the congressional General Accounting Office, an estimated 85 percent of annual food illness outbreaks are caused by vegetables, fruits, seafood and cheeses ? not the meat, dairy and egg produres most people think of in connection with food poisoning.

"There are two types of foods: those that are potentially hazardous and those that aren't hazardous themselves but can support pathogens," food microbiologist Richard Linton says. "Fruits and vegetables themselves aren't often hazardous. But they can support pathogens that can make you ill."

A recent New York Times article reported that despite technological advances, Americans may have a greater chance of getting sick from food than they did 50 years ago. Experts attribute this, in part, to Americans' increasing appetite for raw fruits and vegetables.

"If we were to cook these products, it wouldn't be a safety concern," Linton says. "However, unlike beef or pork, we may not know how to prepare produce to kill the pathogens."

By themselves, fruits and vegetables are poor surfaces for bacteria to thrive. They lack the protein, moisture and pH levels that meat, eggs and milk have. But vegetable farmers often use manure to help fertilize their fields, and that is where the trouble begins.

"It might be grown in fields cultivated with manure, or adjacent to a farm field that contains livestock, and when it rains the manure spreads over the vegetable field," Linton says. "Then it's put into a truck with thousands of pounds of other produce, and it can spread."

One of the biggest food illness outbreaks in the past decade came from coleslaw sold in an Indiana restaurant. Many people were surprised to find that it was the cabbage, and not the sauce, that apparently was contaminated. More recently, in 1999 a contaminated batch of orange juice caused one death and sickened 400 people. According to the Center for Disease Control, salads or salad bars accounted for 35 percent of the foodborne illnesses caused by produce, followed by fruit, 21 percent; lettuce, 17 percent; and sprouts, 10 percent.

Another reason for the apparent increase in foodborne illnesses, Linton says, is that new, more deadly pathogens have emerged in the past few decades.

"To get sick from Salmonella, you generally have to consume a million bacteria on that food," he says. "On the other hand, emerging pathogens such as the E. coli 0157:H7 strain or Listeria monocytogenes can cause a serious illness if there are as few as a dozen bacteria on that food. This has only become a known problem in the past few years."

Linton says lettuce is a good example of a vegetable that can give food scientists the willies. "It grows close to the ground," he says. "It may become contaminated, and then new leaves grow up and cover the contaminated areas, allowing the pathogens to grow. It has a lot of surface area that can become contaminated, and it's wrinkled, so it has places that may not be cleaned thoroughly."

Linton suggests salad lovers consider buying their greens prepackaged in bags. "Lettuce in bags has typically been given some type of cleaning and pathogen reduction step, such as a chlorinated water bath," he says. "That cleans every piece of lettuce better. On the other hand, if you buy a head of lettuce from the store, only the outside has been washed."

There are a few ways consumers can protect themselves from dirty vegetables and fruits, Linton says.

  • Be extra careful with fruits and vegetables that are grown close to the soil. "That means potatoes, carrots, lettuce, strawberries ? and those types of foods are going to be more risky," Linton says.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables carefully under cool, running water using a brush. Although there are sprays on the market that claim to clean fruits and vegetables, Linton urges consumers be careful about how they use the products. "You have to read the labels," he says. "Some products remove pesticide residues, but they don't claim to remove microorganisms. There are anti-bacterial sprays, but if you read the labels on some of them, it says they need a contact time of 15 minutes, minimum. Not many people do that."
  • Be aware that foods with rough surfaces are harder to clean. "It's easier to clean an apple or a green pepper than it is to clean a strawberry," Linton says. "Bacteria like to attach in the little grooves and crevices."
  • Buy prepackaged forms of higher risk foods. Most prepackaged foods have been washed thoroughly and treated with an antimicrobial solution.

Despite the precautions, there is still one food Linton won't touch. "Bean sprouts are a very risky food," he says. "The way they are grown and cultivated often don't meet the safety standards that they should. Salmonella has been associated with them for years."

Unlike foodborne illnesses caused by meat and dairy products, which are most often caused by improper cooking, the best measures to prevent illness caused by produce take place on the farm, Linton says.

He recommends vegetable farmers and fruit growers who would like to know more about production methods that can reduce the chances of illnesses read "Food Safety Begins on the Farm: A Grower's Guide to Good Agricultural Practices for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables." The 27-page pamphlet was produced by food safety experts at 22 land-grant universities and can be ordered from the Cornell Good Agricultural Practices Program at (697) 254-5383, or by e-mail at eab38@cornell.edu.