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Worker death, other issues bring scrutiny to WTP4 job site

Tuesday, July 3, 2012 by Michael Kanin

Inspectors from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have visited the city’s Water Treatment Plant 4 construction site three times in recent months to investigate a worker safety “incident.”


Officials with OSHA visited the treatment plant site after a construction worker died while working in what will be the facility’s raw water intake shaft on Saturday June 23. According to Austin Water Utility spokesman Kevin Buchman, the worker, who was in his late 60s, suffered an apparent heart attack. Buchman did not have the name of the worker.


OSHA also came to the site after a cable snapped as workers were removing spoils from the Four Points shaft site, and after they received a tip about alleged unsafe conditions.


OSHA spokesperson Elizabeth Todd told In Fact Daily that the agency “has opened an investigation into the incident,” but she said she could not specify which incident or offer any other information about an ongoing investigation.


Workers Defense Project (WDP) Business Liaison Gregorio Casar said that, with regard to workers’ safety issues, “it seemed that things were not being done professionally or well.” However, Casar said that things seem to have improved in the past week or so since the OSHA visits.


Buchman said that, during an exit discussion with OSHA, the agency indicated to local officials “that they didn’t see any issues with any obvious violations.” However, activists with  WDP say that they remain concerned for workers at the site. That worry includes allegations that workers at the site are not receiving the rest breaks required by city ordinance.


Water industry contractor MWH is overseeing the contracting for the entire project as Construction Manager at Risk.


The Austin City Council passed an ordinance in July 2010 that mandates a 10-minute break for every four hours worked on a construction site. Code Compliance Department spokeswoman Melissa Martinez told In Fact Daily that the department visited the treatment plant’s construction site after receiving a complaint in March and another in May. They found no violations, and closed each case.


However, according to Martinez, Code Compliance officials are charged only with making sure that work sites exhibit the appropriate signage informing workers of their right to a rest break. “If there are workers that want to lodge a complaint that they’re not getting their breaks … they can file an affidavit and take that down to municipal court,” Martinez said.


What that means is that the onus is on the employee to file a criminal complaint, charging his employer with a Class C misdemeanor if that employer fails to provide a 10-minute break every four hours for construction workers at a construction work site. Information was not immediately available from the Municipal Court on whether that has ever happened.


There is nothing in that chapter of Austin City Code (4-5-2) that prevents Code Compliance from taking a proactive approach. In fact, if the city finds persistent violations, it can file suit or seek an injunction to prevent an employer from not providing rest breaks.


Buchman said that the Austin Water Utility takes all of the issues “very seriously.” He noted that officials “will make sure that our subcontractors are aware of the city’s policies” in regard to the rest break ordinance.


Casar said that he has been concerned about conditions at the Water Treatment Plant site for some time. Indeed, as part of testimony he delivered during the debate over the redevelopment of the Green Water Treatment Plant site, Casar noted that “for weeks, we’ve been talking to the Public Works department about dozens of workers who aren’t receiving rest breaks on Water Treatment Plant 4.”


In response, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole said that she would ask City Manager Marc Ott to check on the issue. Cole was unavailable for comment Monday.


Todd with OSHA said an investigation by the agency “could take weeks or it could take months.”

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