Deaths of four ironworkers, one carpenter prove the dangers

June 10, 2007 

TOLEDO, Ohio – During the first year of work on Toledo’s new Veterans’ Glass City Skyway bridge, Fru-Con Construction, a Missouri-based contractor, figured out a way to be more efficient by rerouting traffic through the construction zone.

It was a huge time-saver. In February 2004, Fru-Con was cruising along, 12 months ahead of schedule on its five-year contract and looking forward to a big bonus for beating its November 2006 completion deadline.

Then everything changed.

On Feb. 16, a 900-ton truss crane collapsed on eight men below. Four ironworkers were crushed to death. Four others were seriously injured.

“You’re going along and you don’t think that anything could happen, and then it does,” said Mike Gramza, the bridge project manager for the Ohio Department of Transportation. “This whole community went into shock that day.”

Across the country, the Tacoma Narrows bridge project has had no such disasters. Just slightly more than a month from completion, there have been no fatalities and relatively few injuries.

From the beginning, safety has been close to an obsession for Tacoma Narrows Constructors and project manager Manuel Rondon.

Safety is stressed at every opportunity, with regular meetings, banners and signs posted everywhere and bonuses given to managers for injury-free performance.

TNC’s most recent safety report shows more than 3 million hours worked with only three accidents serious enough that the worker couldn’t report the next day.

Gramza doesn’t believe Fru-Con was running an unsafe operation before its crane accident. When it happened, he noted, the contractor was exceeding industry standards on numbers of accidents per time worked.

Even so, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Fru-Con, saying it hadn’t properly secured the legs of the crane. Ohio prosecutors are considering felony charges.

Fru-Con paid a $280,000 fine to OSHA and $11.25 million in wrongful-death claims, attorney fees and other expenses to the families of three ironworkers.

Construction stopped for 18 months, putting Fru-Con behind schedule and an estimated $130 million in the hole.

Then, a fifth death. On April 19, a carpenter fell 82 feet from a work platform hanging over the bridge deck.

The losses are heartbreaking, Gramza said, but the sad fact is, bridge building is dangerous work.

“Your goal is to strive for zero,” he said, “but usually around 75 percent of projects of this magnitude will have fatalities.”

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