A broken chunk of latticed steel protruding from a shattered window marked the spot last week where three workers died and a fourth was badly injured when a scaffold collapsed and fell to the ground at a construction site in downtown Raleigh.
More abstractly, the disaster happened at the intersection of several trends in the construction business.
As the industry continues its rebound from the recession, builders are investing again in high-rise offices and apartments, which increasingly rely on motorized scaffolding systems called mast-climbing work platforms. Versatile and relatively quickly placed or dismantled, mast climbers are generally regarded as safe, but they require special training and expertise to install and operate safely.
As it has for decades, the industry also is relying ever more on Latino workers, and labor advocates say these men and women don’t always get the training and safety equipment they need on the job, which could explain why Latinos suffer a higher fatality rate in construction than non-Latinos even as the industry as a whole is becoming less deadly. Language sometimes plays a part, as do immigration issues, with workers in the country without permission afraid that if they speak up about safety violations, they’ll lose wages, lose their jobs or get deported, advocates say.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
All four workers in Tuesday’s collapse at the Charter Square building on Fayetteville Street were Hispanic men. Anderson Antones de Almeida, 33, and Jose Erasmo Hernandez, 41, both of Durham, died in the accident, as did Jose Luis Lopez-Ramirez, 33, of Clinton. Elmer Guevara, 53, of Durham was severely injured.
It could be months before OSHA investigators can say what caused the collapse. The inquiry will look into:
▪ Whether the men had been properly trained to work on the mast climber, which was being dismantled when the accident happened.
▪ Whether they followed proper procedure.
▪ Whether the device had been properly installed and was engineered to withstand the required amount of load and force.
▪ Whether there was some defect in the manufacture of the lift or a failure in its maintenance.
▪ Or whether there was some other factor, such as wind, that might have put excessive strain on the device.
“We won’t know for a while whether that incident was preventable,” said Catherine Singley, manager of the Economic Policy Project for the National Council of La Raza, the Hispanic advocacy group in Washington. “But we know that Latinos are disproportionately affected by accidents in the construction industry, and it’s not just an education and training situation.
“There also is a difference between what is taught and what is practiced, what’s on the books and what is reality in many workplaces. We speak to workers day in and day out who know that they are risking their lives and that the conditions that could prevent injuries are not being taken care of.”
Those who work in and watch over the construction business here say mast climbers are a relatively recent arrival on the job site in North Carolina. Industry reports say the first mast climbers were built around 1983 and, a decade later, were at work in New York, Philadelphia and others cities with tall skylines. Later, they began to appear in Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh, but when the recession hit in 2008, many high-rise building projects were canceled or put on hold, and like the tradesmen who would have used them, the devices were less in demand.
With commercial building starting to show improvement, mast climbers have reappeared.
They’re often used by brick masons, window installers and others who do finish work on a building. They may also be used to haul people or materials as a structure is being built.
They consist of a power-driven platform that climbs one or more vertical towers fastened to the wall of a building.
According to a December 2010 report on mast climbers by the Center for Construction Research and Training, the lifts are quicker and less costly to erect and dismantle than traditional scaffolds, can carry greater loads, and can reduce workers’ shoulder and back injuries because they can be adjusted to optimum work heights. Their chief advantage – that they can rise hundreds of feet in the air – also presents their biggest hazard.
“When installed and used correctly, they are as safe as other scaffold types,” says the report. “But when they fall, the results are usually catastrophic, often involving multiple deaths and serious injuries.”
The researchers said there were at least 12 accidents involving mast climbers from 1990 to 2010; 18 workers died. All the deaths involved falls, which are the most common cause of death in construction. Several involved falls of 40 to 85 feet. In Austin, Texas, three workers died in 2009 after two fell more than 100 feet and the third fell onto the roof of a seven-story garage. In that accident, investigators said the mast climber had been improperly erected, and some parts and materials were substandard or not adequate for the loads used.
By 2010, the report says, about 16,800 people were working on about 5,600 mast climbers across the country every day.
And yet, federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulators have not written specifications for the use of mast climbers. Companies that build, lease or own the devices rely on standards accredited by the American National Standards Institute. ANSI’s 68 pages of standards, last updated in 2011, address how mast climbers should be designed, built and used.
Lifelines not required
North Carolina, which enforces the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act through its own plan approved by the U.S. Department of Labor, has a 38-page Guide to Safe Scaffolding to help keep workers from being injured. It does not mention mast climbers.
When there is an accident, OSHA investigators can write citations based on the agency’s general scaffolding standards, which predate mast climbers, or from the agency’s general duty clause, which says that an employer must provide a safe work site.
To help determine whether there was a violation, OSHA refers to the ANSI standards and to the manuals manufacturers provide.
After Tuesday’s accident, news reports noted that the workers did not appear to have been tethered to the building.
Jim Stanley, former deputy assistant secretary of labor for OSHA and now president of FDR Safety, a consulting company in Franklin, Tenn., says OSHA requires workers to have a lifeline to the building only with a couple of types of scaffolding, and a mast climber isn’t one.
That could be because the ropes themselves would present a tangling hazard, Stanley said. Each worker on the platform would need enough line to reach from the anchor to the ground so the platform could fully descend, and gathering the rope in as the platform rapidly rises up a tower would be difficult.
The standards do require the workers to wear harnesses with a line attached to the lift, Stanley said, to catch the worker if he falls from the platform. Statistically, it’s more likely that the worker will fall from the platform than that the platform will fall from the tower, he said.
It’s up to employers to make sure that workers are trained to use mast climbers, along with any other equipment on a construction site, and up to the workers to adhere to the training.
As the construction industry rebounds, however, it is likely to attract people who have limited understanding of the risks, said Johnny Rankin, executive vice president for the Raleigh office of Balfour Beatty Construction, which was not involved with Tuesday’s accident.
“That’s the worker that needs the education and that you need to be mindful of,” Rankin said.
Choate Construction is the general contractor on the Charter Square building. Two of the workers who died were employees of Juba Aluminum Products of Concord, which installs glass curtain walls on buildings. The third man who died worked for KEA Contracting. The injured man worked for Associated Scaffolding Equipment. None of the companies has said publicly what might have caused the scaffold to fall.
Hispanics at risk
Workers and employers alike say safety conditions at construction sites have vastly improved in the past 20 to 30 years.
“When I started in the industry, hard hats were a given, but eye protection was something that you really worked hard to make sure people used,” Rankin said. “Now, you’ve got your hard hat, your vest, your gloves specific to whatever task you’re doing, your eye protection, and compliance is usually easy to obtain.”
Contractors and subcontractors are responsible for worker safety, and can be cited and fined for failures if reported or an OSHA inspector sees the violation.
Their first or second day on a job site, workers get mandatory training that can include reading safety guides and safety lectures or videos. The materials must be presented in Spanish if that’s what the worker speaks. Each day, employees get a safety briefing tailored to that day’s tasks. Those who don’t follow safety rules can be pulled off the job.
According to OSHA reports, fatalities in the construction industry overall dropped from 11.5 per 100,000 workers in 2004 to 8.6 in 2013.
“I’d like to think that’s because we understand the risks,” Rankin said. “We try to make safety not so much about policing anymore as about education, and educating the workforce on the risks that are out there.
“We want to make sure that everyone goes home to their family at the end of the workday.”
Rashad Dark, 39, of Butner, is an electrician who has worked in construction since 1998, mostly in the Triangle. He had just started working on the 11-story Charter Square building a few days before the scaffold collapse. He heard the crash and saw the bodies.
Later in the week, he returned to the property, where work has been halted, to retrieve his tools so he could look for another job.
Dark said he’s never been hurt on the job, because the companies he works for watch closely for safety violations. A few times, he said, he has warned others that they were doing something that could have caused them, or him, to be injured.
“Everybody I know sees crazy stuff,” Dark said. “Everybody’s got stories. If I see somebody doing something they’re not supposed to, I say, ‘Hey, man, if you want to stay on the job, don’t do like that.’ It’s nothing for a general contractor to knock you off a job.”
It can be different for Latinos, said Singley, the worker advocate, especially if they are in the country illegally. They may not know that it’s their employer’s responsibility to make sure they have proper training and safety equipment, Singley said. If the employer doesn’t provide it, she said, and the worker can’t afford it, the worker may go without, and will be less likely than non-Latino colleagues to mention a safety problem to a supervisor or inspector.
OSHA statistics indicate that while Latinos made up about 24 percent of the construction industry’s workforce in 2013, they suffered nearly 30 percent of the fatalities. For Latinos, the fatality rate in construction was 9.8 deaths per 100,000 workers that year.
“As construction picks up again, the emphasis on protecting Latino workers has faded,” Singley said. “And people are dying because of it.”