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Worked to death 

Construction work in El Paso County can be lethal.

If you could just ask Dwight Moyer ...

click to enlarge 22e8_cover-17268.gif

A blast of wind and a gush of rain was all it took to take Dwight Moyer's life. Two years ago this month, the 50-year-old bricklayer was helping to build a wall at the Wild Oats natural supermarket at 3180 New Center Point in northeast Colorado Springs when the scaffolding above him started rattling.

Workers yelled, "Run! Run!" and scattered every which way.

But Moyer's legs could not carry him fast enough to escape the twisting metal and concrete as it came thundering down on top of him.

In the weeks following the chaos, after Moyer was cremated, his wife, Teresa and their three children, aged 12, 17 and 19, learned the accident surely could have been prevented.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which regulates workplace safety, determined that nobody should have been working on the wall as the wind cropped up. An OSHA investigator also found the scaffolding had never been properly secured or checked.

Moyer's death was one of the estimated 100 that occur across Colorado every year in a system where companies are largely relied upon to police themselves.

Sometimes only the worst becomes known because employers aren't required to report to OSHA unless a fatality occurs on the job or if three or more workers are hospitalized as a result of an accident.

Last year, OSHA visited roughly 1 percent of the state's workplaces. After reviewing hundreds of pages of data obtained in a federal Freedom of Information Act request, the Independent has determined that when inspectors arrived, they found, more often than not, violations that posed life-threatening risks.

The industry where the most workers were in the most danger, given the sheer number of sites and a decline of labor unions, was the one in which Moyer labored -- the highly competitive construction business. Over the past five years, more than 50 percent of the citations issued by OSHA in El Paso County were construction industry-related.

Just walk away

The system of determining which companies to fine for unsafe working conditions is complicated and involves several factors: the number of times a company has received prior violations, the number of employees exposed to risk and the company's demonstrated willingness to change.

"It's a complex thing; there's not necessarily strict guidelines," said John Healy, southern Colorado regional director for OSHA.

When an employee is killed on the job, OSHA can hold companies accountable with fines up to $70,000.

In Moyer's case, his employer, Tri-Star Masonry Inc., of Colorado Springs -- which OSHA had cited for unsafe conditions before -- was fined just $12,000.

click to enlarge Dwight Moyer died two years ago this month.
  • Dwight Moyer died two years ago this month.

After the accident, an investigator noted the company could have simply told workers to put down their tools and walk away as winds whipped to speeds in excess of 20 miles per hour. OSHA also determined that the scaffolding was improperly secured and that Tri-Star "did not have records" for inspecting the equipment. Still, Tri-Star was given a break because company officials promised to improve conditions.

"We got some concessions out of the company to go above and beyond safety requirements," said Healy.

But Craig Phipps, a friend of the family's for more than a decade, maintains that Moyer's death should have resulted in more than what he considers a slap on the wrist.

But the chances of that were miniscule.

In the last five years, of 11 El Paso County workers who have died on the job, including Moyer, OSHA has leveled a total of $32,750 in fines -- an equivalent of less than $3,000 a person. Such low amounts, critics say, provide little incentive to improve workplace safety.

The $12,000 fine, paid by Tri-Star to the federal agency, was the largest of the 11 fines. In four of the other cases where workers were killed, OSHA issued no fines or citations.

System's on overload

The last time OSHA had inspected a Tri-Star construction site was five years before Moyer's death -- a typical timeline because inspectors are stretched thin.

In Colorado, just 26 inspectors are charged with overseeing the state's 142,000 worksites -- the equivalent of 5,461 worksites per inspector. Last year, the 26 inspectors visited 1,455 sites, averaging about one onsite visit a week per inspector.

Inspectors are often alerted to problems by rescue workers who report workplace emergencies or by workers complaining about unsafe conditions. Other times, OSHA conducts on-site inspections.

Between 1999 and 2004, investigators spent more time overall responding to problems than doing routine work, according to the agency's data.

And when inspectors arrived in El Paso County, they found ample fuel to issue serious, willful or repeat violations more than 62 percent of the time. Such violations mean there were scores of hazards that had the potential to snuff a life.

While construction companies garnered the most citations in El Paso County, statewide, 13 companies overall had the worst records, logging 16 or more such violations in a single inspection (see box, page 17).

Inspectors respond to immediate dangers, fatalities and accidents first. Then come the complaints, which can take up to five days to address. Finally come routine inspections.

Al Belsky, an OSHA spokesman in Washington, D.C., defended the system in place. He said it is up to employers to keep their worksites safe, adding that it is in their interest to do so in order to keep insurance rates and possibile federal fines down.

click to enlarge Dwight Moyer was crushed when cement and scaffolding - fell during the construction of this Wild Oats Market. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Dwight Moyer was crushed when cement and scaffolding fell during the construction of this Wild Oats Market.

But others say the agency should be more proactive.

"[OSHA just doesn't] have the resources to be effective," said Mark Johnson, president of the local chapter of the AFL-CIO, the country's largest labor federation."They are overwhelmed."

In 2006, the Bush administration has proposed a $467 million budget for OSHA, a slight increase from this year's $464.2 million. While more funds will go to enforcement, Johnson notes the population is rising and the construction industry is booming, so the funds shouldn't necessarily be looked at as a definite increase. He is further critical because a $10 million safety program is slated to be cut.

The administration isn't fully committed to worker safety, he says. But providing better safety would ultimately help the industry by ensuring that skilled workers can forge careers in construction while improving the reputations of such jobs among the public.

Tidal wave of rooftops

The growing tidal wave of gray rooftops that is replacing the prairie's horizon east of where Moyer was killed has been a magnet for bricklayers, excavators, painters, carpenters, roofers and scores of other construction laborers.

While the jobs are needed, Johnson said, people who do such physically demanding work face all kinds of safety perils. There are heavy and sharp objects, places to trip or fall and unstable temporary structures like the one that killed Moyer.

"Man, is it a mess on most of those job sites," he said. "There's no housekeeping. Safety is not an emphasis."

Part of the reason problems persist is because of factors that are largely beyond workers' control. The tight economy, combined with laws favoring employers, insurance costs and a rising foreign labor pool, often result in toxic conditions for workers.

Last year, construction laborers injured in El Paso County made more claims on insurance companies than any other single county in the state, according to the Colorado agency that tracks worker injuries. As such, some types of construction companies -- like roofers and steel balcony installers -- pay insurance rates comparable to those of stunt pilots and higher than police officers or firefighters.

At the same time, the upper hand is clearly the company's because Colorado is a "right to work" state, which allows employers to dismiss workers at will while providing little explanation. Johnson said many employers make workers feel they are easily replaced, striking fear in families, especially those struggling paycheck-to-paycheck, juggling rent or a mortgage, and rising automotive, health care, credit card, food and utilities expenses.

This leaves many workers reluctant to identify unsafe conditions unless their bosses are particularly aggressive about safety, Johnson said.

"They don't want to be complainers," he said.

Moreover, an undetermined number of laborers do not have the proper documentation to work in the United States and are therefore less likely to talk about unsafe conditions because of a language barrier or fear of being deported, union leaders say.

Johnson, a Colorado Springs native and a longtime advocate of union protections, maintains that unions can be essential to worker safety. For example, union workers can call their representatives anonymously and warn them of chronic hazards. In turn, the union can call the employer to resolve the issue, or even threaten to report dangerous conditions to federal authorities if the response is slow.

click to enlarge Craig Phipps, pictured with wife Tammy and daughter - Andrea. - COLLAN FITZPATRICK
  • Collan Fitzpatrick
  • Craig Phipps, pictured with wife Tammy and daughter Andrea.

Employers can't fire union representatives, he noted; even if employees speak out, they are protected from retaliation.

"That gives the union an advantage," he said.

While support for unions in El Paso County has always been low, participation has further eroded since 1998, Johnson says, when the AFL-CIO estimated more than 60 percent of construction projects were completed by union companies. Now, as few as 20 percent are union jobs, Johnson said.

According to OSHA documents, 93 percent of the county worksites investigated in the last five years were nonunion shops.

"That doesn't surprise me at all," Johnson said.

For his part, Kevin Walker, president of the Housing and Building Association of Colorado Springs, wasn't surprised by the finding that construction work is the most-cited by OSHA.

"By its nature, it's very physically demanding," Walker said. While some companies skirt regulations, others emphasize safety -- particularly large companies that might have their own safety coordinators, he said.

Struggling to move on

Two years after Moyer's death, his wife Teresa, who lives in the small community of Calhan east of Colorado Springs, is still too grief-stricken to be interviewed. She deferred questions to her close friends Craig and Tammy Phipps.

"She kind of just shut down afterward," said Tammy. "It was too painful."

Phipps recalled the first time she met her friend's husband. She was in the pool with Teresa. The two moms were teaching their children to swim. Moyer, fresh off a bricklaying job, appeared poolside, filthy after a long day's work, jeans with holes in the knees. His daughter ran to greet him.

"It was real obvious ..." Tammy Phipps said, as she started to cry. Her husband finished her sentence, "that he was a good dad. You could tell."

Since her husband's death, Teresa has struggled, the Phipps couple said. Because he was the family's primary provider, under state law Moyer receives the standard compensation -- an equivalent of two-thirds of her husband's salary at the time of his death. Moyer had been with Tri-Star for a few weeks and was making a starting salary with no benefits.

Teresa explored the possibility of a lawsuit, but after consulting a lawyer concluded her chances of securing a larger settlement would be virtually impossible. She has to resort to Social Security assistance to help in raising her children.

"Teresa got virtually nothing," Craig Phipps said.

click to enlarge Mark Johnson, president of the local AFL-CIO, says that - on most job sites, Safety is not an emphasis. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Mark Johnson, president of the local AFL-CIO, says that on most job sites, Safety is not an emphasis.

Tri-Star management did not return calls seeking comment for this story. But the incident at Wild Oats was not the company's first safety violation.

The last time OSHA inspected Tri-Star, in 1998, the company was cited for several other serious violations. One of those was that the company had exposed its workers to unsafe scaffolding.

Five years later, Dwight Moyer lost his life, working for Tri-Star, crushed by a scaffold brought down by high winds.

"Normally people will correct problems," said Healy, OSHA's regional director. "They won't blow us off. But in the construction industry, it is a little difficult to track."

FREQUENT OFFENDERS

In the last five years, 13 companies have been cited for at least 16 federal safety regulations in a single visit.

CF & I, LP/Rocky Mountain Steel Mills, steel operations in Pueblo: 41 serious or repeat violations (2000)

Gates & Sons Inc., concrete business in Denver: 28 serious violations (2000)

Suiza/Meadow Gold Dairies Inc., ice cream and frozen desserts business in Englewood: 26 serious violations (2001)

The Harloff Company Inc., utility cart manufacturer in Colorado Springs: 24 serious violations (2000)

M2p2/Heritage Farms, LLC, hog and pig farming in Wiley: 23 serious or willful violations (2004)

Arkansas Valley Alfalfa Milling Company, Inc. animal feed company, Wiley: 21 serious violations (2001)

Recycled Materials Co., wrecking and demolition in Arvada: 18 serious or repeat violations (2002)

Colorado Iron and Metal Inc., fabricated metal manufacturing in Fort Collins: 17 serious violations (2000)

Colorado Marble & Granite Inc., cut stone and stone manufacturing in Denver: 17 serious or repeat violations (2003)

J & P Roofing Inc., roofing contractors in Denver: 16 serious violations (2003)

James Hartman, roofing contractors in Littleton: 16 serious violations (2003)

Crane Pro Services, crane operators, in Pueblo: 16 serious violations (2000)

Tierra Concrete Homes, homebuilder in Boone: 16 serious violations (2001)

Source: Independent research of Occupational Safety and Health Administration data

  • Construction work in El Paso County can be lethal. If you could just ask Dwight Moyer ...

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