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New Orleans bridge deaths highlight construction hazards

Garry Boulard
New Orleans CityBusiness

A recent spate of construction worker deaths on the Huey P. Long Bridge and the Interstate 10 Twin Span near New Orleans underline for Dan Morton a basic reality about safety on the job site.

While the deaths have sent a strong message to construction companies to review safety policies and constantly update their equipment, Morton and other industry experts say there’s only so much they can do.

“I don’t want to say that this sort of thing is expected, because that is by no means our view,” said Morton, safety manager with Kansas City, Mo.-based Massman Construction Co., one of three companies working on the Huey P. Long Bridge.

“But even the best organizations with the best safety programs still cannot foresee every second of every movement of every individual worker,” Morton said.

In June, two men from the Kiewit/Massman/Traylor joint venture working on the Huey P. project fell 80 feet to their deaths after the rebar cage they were working on gave way. At the time of the accident, the men were working on the West Bank of the Mississippi River on a section of the bridge.

The deaths came on the heels of two other fatal accidents on the Twin Span project, both involving workers from New Orleans-based Boh Bros. Construction Co. In January, a 65-year-old crane operator working on the Twin Span fell to his death in Lake Pontchartrain from an unbalanced crane. And in October, a construction foreman on the Twin Span fell 30 feet into the lake and died when a girder he was working from collapsed. Nine other workers also fell into the water in the accident but survived.

It’s too early to say how national statistics will reflect these and other high-profile accidents, including a series of crane-related fatalities in Houston, New York, Miami and Las Vegas that made headlines in 2008.

But statistics showed job sites were somewhat less dangerous in 2007, when the number of construction-related fatalities fell to 1,239 from 1,297 the previous year, according to the most recent figures available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Louisiana mirrored that trend, with 25 construction deaths in 2007 compared to 31 the previous year.

Rusty Shelton, corporate safety and health director for Boh Bros., said the industry’s accidents in Louisiana and Mississippi have been trending downward for a long time.

“But even so, you never stop wondering how you can make things better and more safe, and that is an effort that is only redoubled when something does go wrong,” he said.

Such deaths, says Indira Parrales, communications manager with the Louisiana TIMED Program, which is paying for the $1.25 billion widening of the Huey P. Long Bridge, “are of course very, very sad, but they once again serve to remind everyone that this is a dangerous business — there is no two ways about it.”

With an increase in construction projects nationwide, the Occupational Safety Health Administration is adding more inspectors to make sure construction sites are complying with federal safety standards, said Elizabeth Todd, acting regional director for public affairs in OSHA’s Region 6, which includes Louisiana.

“It’s part of OSHA’s initiative to reduce the number of accidents and keep our workers in a safer workplace environment.”

Jeff Arnold, risk manager for Traylor Brothers Inc. of Evansville, Ind., part of the Huey P. and Twin Span joint venture projects, said safety is “a daily process” for the company.

“We have meetings every day,” Arnold said. “We start the shift with a stretching program as well as going over specific safety issues that are going to come up with each crew. We have safety professionals at each job and they monitor equipment. It is not just a daily process, but really an hourly process.”

New Orleans CityBusiness, like The Daily Reporter, is owned by Dolan Media Co.

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