By: JIM McCAFFREY , The Evening Bulletin Staff Reporter
Published: October 24, 2006
Philadelphia - Horror stories came to City Council yesterday just in time for the Halloween season.
Council's Committee on Labor and Civil Service held hearings on construction worker safety. Councilman Juan Ramos introduced the resolution authorizing the hearings.
Ramos asked for the committee session after the death of Fabi Construction worker Jeff Martin, who fell from the fifth floor of the Symphony House Condo construction site on Broad Street less than a month ago. Fellow workers reportedly found him impaled on a second floor steel rod.
Fabi Construction, witnesses testified, has at least a decade-long history of safety violations that resulted in deaths. That history includes the four deaths and 21 injuries in the infamous garage collapse at the Tropicana Casino in Atlantic City. Fabi, an Egg Harbor Township, N.J. company, did not testify at the hearing yesterday on the advice of its lawyers.
Fabi was fined $119,000 for safety violations in the Atlantic City garage disaster, but there was no criminal prosecution. Some consider the fine a light punishment given the company could have been fined up to $250,000 and anyone found responsible for the safety violations could have been sentenced to six months in jail.
Ramos, after recessing the session, threatened to subpoena the construction firm for the next hearing.
Barbara Rahke, director of Philadelphia Area Project on Occupational Safety and Health, brought with her testimony a story about Calvin, a homeless man living in a shelter. Last April, she told the committee, Calvin and other men in his shelter were offered work cleaning an old north Philadelphia factory. When they got there, Calvin discovered the men were brought in to clean up asbestos.
Rahke (pronounced Rocky) contacted the Occupational Safety Health Administration (OSHA) on Calvin's behalf. Last week, OSHA responded with their findings - a willful citation and a serious citation for the company in charge and a $13,500 fine.
The director worried in her testimony that many workers at construction sites are undocumented and uneducated in matters of safety. Many are per diem workers who are paid in cash at day's end. These people work off the books and, when they are injured, the injuries are not reported and the laborer is out of work.
"We in the City of Philadelphia must face the consequences of an economic system that values short-term gain for a company over the safety and health of its workers, and face the reality that, without mandatory safeguards and meaningful penalties, the behavior will not change and will continue to have tragic consequences," she testified.
Ramos called the behavior of the employers of the homeless workers "criminal."
Kate Dugan, Regional Director of Public Affairs for OSHA, read testimony for OSHA's regional administrator Marie Cassidy.
Cassidy noted in her testimony there have been 16 workplace fatalities in the Philadelphia area during the last year. The deaths include seven from falling. The rest were electrocutions, a drowning and fatalities from "contact" with objects in the workplace.
Last year, OSHA issued 771 workplace citations for safety violations in the Philadelphia area. Sixty-five percent of those violations were listed as serious. Nine of the violations were marked willful and 33 were repeat violations. There were 392 citations, about 50 percent of the total, issued for fall hazard violations.
Cassidy complained contractors in this area do not take safety and health concerns seriously.
"Recently, our Philadelphia area director reached out to 100 contractors working in the steel erection industry in and around Philadelphia," she complained to the committee. "Only eight of those contractors responded to our invitation to discuss safety and health."
Dugan offered to provide more OSHA training to City Licenses and Inspections officers - particularly training in identifying fall hazards.
Fred Consenza, a business representative for Philadelphia's Building & Construction Traces Council of the AFL-CIO, testified OSHA is understaffed and needs help. He called OSHA an ally and friend of the building trades.
"We're here to try to make sure that people go home at the end of the day," he told the committee. "My heart goes out to the family of Jeffrey Martin. I don't think that had to happen."
James Sassaman of the General Building Contractors Association, Inc. and Jimmy Bickle, chairman of the Safety Committee of the Southeast Pennsylvania Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc., both testified their organizations have safety training videos and programs available to their members.
After the hearing recessed, Ramos commented, "We need to do a bit better if not a whole lot better in the area of workers on construction sites. We need OSHA and L&I to work closer together."