Published Tuesday, June 24, 2008 | 2 p.m.
Updated Tuesday, Oct. 28, 2008 | 10:15 a.m.
WASHINGTON-- Construction safety on the Las Vegas Strip became a national issue this morning as the chairman of the House labor committee took aim at Nevada OSHA for the way it has handled cases involving fatal accidents.
Democratic Rep. George Miller of California said serious questions are raised by Nevada OSHA's practice of withdrawing fines against contractors for violations that contributed to fatalities.
"The project in Nevada looks a little like a test case here, in the sense that fatalities and injuries have taken place, yet they continue," Miller said. "The number one tool in the aresenal-fines-- continue to get waved. This raiises very, very serious questions about the state enforcement and what federal government has the ability to do under the current law."
Miller's comments came before a packed hearing room as the House Education and Labor Committee heard from witnesses about the adequacy of state and federal OSHAs. The hearing will be rebroadcast over the internet later this afternoon.
Among those to testify was former Las Vegas ironworker George Cole, whose brother-in-law Harold "Rusty" Billingsley fell 59-feet to his death at MGM Mirage's $9.2 billion CityCenter earlier this year. He was one of 12 workers who have died on Strip construction sites over the last 18 months.
Cole told the committee that he and his wife, Billingsley's sister, Monique, who was seated behind him and occasional wiped away tears, were devastated when OSHA scrapped the $13,000 fine levied on the construction firm at MGM Mirage's CityCenter project after Billingsley's death.
Cole also testified that had regulations not been watered down by OSHA to allow the worksite to forego flooring or netting, Billingsley might still be alive.
The committee spent a great deal of time questioning OSHA's "compliance directive," which interprets the OSHA standard on flooring.
"Rusty's death was not his fault," Cole said.
The lawmakers on the panel were primarily Democrats, as just a handful of Republicans showed up for the hearing. Lawmakers grilled Edwin G. Foulke, Jr, the Labor Department,s assistant secretary in charge of OSHA, who struggled to answer basic questions -- at one point saying, "I just follow the law."
Other witnesses testified about ways to improve construction safety, perhaps through better worker training, greater oversight from cities and counties to supplement OSHA, more federal oversight of the states (including Nevada) that operate their own workplace safety regulatory agencies, and granting OSHA more power, such as the ability to shut down worksites.
Nevada lawmakers have begun to weigh in on the Strip deaths. Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley joined the panel for robust questioning of the Foulke. Republican Rep. Jon Porter stopped by to present Billingsley,s family with a flag that had flown in his honor over the Capitol.
Porter also said he was seeking additional federal funds for OSHA inspectors in Nevada.