Falling consistently ranks among the top causes of workplace injuries and deaths, and is the #1 killer of construction workers. In 2015, 11% of 44 fatal workplace accidents that took place in Oregon were falls. This year, painters on the Ross Island Bridge were exposed to treacherous conditions when their contractor failed to follow basic safety regulations to protect them from hazardous falls. Two painters suffered serious injuries, prompting an investigation into the project, which the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division just completed after four months. Upon discovery of several worker safety violations, OSHA, which is overseen by the Oregon Department of Transportation, has issued the largest fine against a company since 2012.

9 Safety Violations Discovered

Oregon OSHA investigators uncovered 9 severe safety violations on the bridge repainting project upon the conclusion of their investigation. Each violation pertained to a failure to keep workers safe from falling. OSHA issued a fine of $189,000 in response to the violations which put their workers at high risk of fatality.

According to OSHA, the company they hired to repaint the Ross Island Bridge knowingly and repeatedly exposed workers to precarious working conditions that could easily have resulted in injury and death. Having found two of the nine violations to be willful, administrator Michael Wood sought the maximum penalties against Abhe & Svoboda in the hopes that the company would change its future approach to safety.

It was a calamitous fall that prompted the investigation in the first place. In early February, a worker plummeted 37 feet from a scaffold onto another worker causing both of them to suffer traumatic injuries. Marco Lilly, the man who fell, was working under the bridge on a suspended scaffold using a compressed air hose to blow debris away from the workspace. When the hose became stuck, Lilly lost his balance trying to free it. He then descended through an unsecured ladder access opening in the scaffold. Lilly landed on another employee — his son — who stood on the platform below, scraping paint near the base of the ladder. The men were rescued by the local fire department, which delivered them to the Oregon Health & Science University hospital.

Both men suffered severe trauma, including facial fractures, other fractures, and bleeding of the brain. OSHA noted in its report that in most cases, the type of fall would have resulted in at least one fatality.

Other Violations

In addition to the nine violations that encouraged administrators to issue a hefty penalty, investigators compiled a long list of other shortcomings that put workers at immediate risk.

  1. Abhe & Svoboda did not facilitate safe access to work areas, forcing employees to climb scaffolding and perform dangerous maneuvers around holes to get around.
  2. The scaffolding network setup for the Ross Island Bridge was not built to standards
  3. A competent supervisor did not direct the setting up or dismantling of scaffolds or related parts.
  4. No rest platforms were found for those climbing tall ladders over 30 feet high.
  5. The company failed to ensure that work platforms were at least 18” wide.
  6. No fall protection anchorages were installed or used under a competent supervisor.
  7. The company failed to check for defects on scaffolds.
  8. Makeshift items were used to increase working height.

Minnesota-based Abhe & Svoboda Inc.’s troubled safety record was unknown at the time they were hired by ODOT to repaint the Ross Island Bridge. It turns out they carried a lot of baggage in the safety department.

Broken Safety Record

OSHA failed to recognize that Abhe & Svoboda has a long history of ignoring worker safety. In 2011, the company repainted the Astoria-Megler Bridge on the Columbia River in Washington. Records show that inspectors levied fines of over $31,000 for the company’s failure to test employees for lead exposure and provide respirators. Inspectors also noted unsafe scaffolding and other violations.

During the past almost 50 years, Abhe & Svoboda has been fined several hundreds of thousands of dollars for violating safety regulations, yet it has not had a major accident since 1998, when it was fined over $250,000 for a fall incident in Maine in which a worker fell 200 feet to the ground below after working on a communications tower.

Two of the nine violations found at the Ross Island Bridge site were deemed “willful” by inspectors. This means that the employer intentionally or knowingly allowed the violation to take place. Each willful violation can carry a maximum fine of $70,000.

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