Sunday, Dec. 28, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Twelve workers died in accidents at Strip construction sites during the first 18 months of Las Vegas’s current building boom — an average of one death every six weeks.
In the past six months, not one worker has died.
To those involved in construction in Las Vegas, the six months since the death June 16 of Lyndal Bates at Boyd Gaming’s Echelon is a reason to celebrate: Las Vegas had developed a nationwide reputation for unsafe conditions.
At MGM Mirage’s CityCenter and the adjacent Cosmopolitan, eight workers fell or were crushed to death. Four more died at other Strip sites — the Fontainebleau, Palazzo, Trump and Echelon.
The Las Vegas Sun documented many of those deaths in stories throughout the spring, reporting that a combination of lax government oversight and a rush to build quickly and as inexpensively as possible contributed to poor safety conditions. That was especially true at CityCenter and Cosmopolitan, projects run by the same general contractor, Perini Building Co.
Industry and union representatives say that since those reports, a series of events appears to have improved safety. Though the sites are certainly not accident-free, the long span without a fatality provides some indication, they say.
“There’s a marked difference,” said Greg McClelland, an Ironworkers union safety representative who has run a monthly meeting since last year involving contractors and union leaders.
“There’s been a palpable effort by all parties. It’s not just Perini, but everyone has really taken stock.”
Pressure to improve came from a variety of sources throughout the spring and early summer.
Workers shut down the $9.2 billion CityCenter site for a day in June; both houses of Congress held hearings on construction safety that included testimony about bad working conditions in Las Vegas; federal and state workplace safety agencies stepped in to review safety conditions on the Strip, and state and local officials met with unions and contractors to discuss safety improvements and government oversight.
“From the management on down, there’s greater emphasis placed on safety now,” said Steve Holloway, vice president of the local chapter of Associated General Contractors, which represents about 700 contractors.
“Safety is so much about culture, about environment,” Holloway said. “If management from top down is concerned, then employees are going to be concerned about safety. And if they’re concerned and conscious, then there are fewer accidents, and that’s what’s happening at CityCenter and other sites.”
External forces also undoubtedly played a role, say union and industry representatives.
The deteriorating economy stalled some projects begun during the current $32 billion boom on the Strip. Others moved forward into their final phases.
Construction at Cosmopolitan and at CityCenter, the largest private commercial development in the nation, is beginning the final year in a three-year construction schedule, with glass skins now enveloping most of the nine high-rise buildings on the adjoining sites.
Contractors say the evolution of those projects combined with the slowing pace of others eased some conditions that increase the risk of fatalities, such as congested sites, shortage of skilled workers, and fatigue from overtime on sites operating around the clock.
Those were also among the problems workers told the Sun they feared were contributing to unsafe working conditions at CityCenter — which they had begun to call “CityCemetery” — and other sites.
In some cases following fatalities, Nevada’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration also found a correlation between a breakdown of safety procedures and the sheer speed of construction.
OSHA found that contractors repeatedly failed to ensure workers were properly trained, allowed them to use faulty equipment and left them exposed to falls by not covering or guarding holes in decking or placing temporary planking or netting below to break the fall of anyone who slipped.
But fundamentally changing the culture of safety here seemed improbable to many involved in the construction industry.
Perini said it was doing everything it could to create a safe work site. The sheer size of the projects, it argued, meant it was more likely workers would make fatal mistakes.
“It’s not going to happen, not in this city,” one safety director at a large general contractor said at the time, speaking on condition that he would not be identified. “It’s push, push, push.”
Today, that safety director says OSHA has gotten tougher to deal with, less likely to make deals with contractors after it cites them.
Deadlines still rule on the work site, however. And workers — and contractors — still violate a lot of safety rules, he says.
“We all have the tendency to hire the cheapest subcontractors you can get, and safety is not part of the equation,” he said. “We end up with issues on that and we just have to stay on top of them.”
By all accounts, the first major impetus for change came from the workers themselves.
On June 3, three days after Dustin Tarter became the sixth worker to die at CityCenter, the local building trades unions announced they would walk off the job sites of CityCenter and Cosmopolitan to protest unsafe conditions.
The walkout marked a sudden reversal by the unions. Until then, the same leaders had been reluctant to express public concern over safety and to pin the accidents not on the contractors but on mistakes by workers.
After the walkout, unions won concessions they had more or less been promised by Perini: to have all workers take 10 hours of safety training and to allow safety researchers onto the site.
Even as Perini’s injury rates dropped this year — although they remain higher than national averages — the company said it had not made changes in its safety practices in reaction to events.
But union officials involved in safety at Perini projects maintain there has been a notable difference since the walkout.
“I do believe that it opened eyes and made the contractors and the owners very much aware of our genuine concern for worker safety,” said John Christiansen, business manager of Sheet Metal Workers Local 88. “The old way of doing things, to continue the course regardless of the cost, changed dramatically. Safety is now more well thought out in the day-to-day procedures.”
That’s translated into increased attention from Perini, said McClelland of the Ironworkers union.
“They claim they’ve always had a safety culture but yet we saw the training, we saw the participation in safety meetings, we saw the addition of more safety managers, we saw more people being fired and removed from the project because of safety violations,” he said.
Government officials also became involved. Committees in the U.S. Senate and House plan to push legislation in the next Congress to overhaul federal OSHA, whose oversight drew harsh criticism in hearings.
As California Democratic Rep. George Miller, chairman of the Education and Labor Committee said, “The No. 1 tool in the arsenal — fines — continues to get waived,” citing the reporting by the Sun that had found Nevada OSHA levied fines against contractors after fatal accidents but withdrew those fines after contractors protested.
“This raises very, very serious questions about the state enforcement and what federal government ... has the ability to do under the current law,” Miller said.
Nevada OSHA appears to have taken some steps. The agency teamed up with federal OSHA to conduct comprehensive inspections of CityCenter and Cosmopolitan. The review found 42 serious safety violations and 67 minor violations.
Nevada OSHA also has gotten tougher in assigning blame for accidents. The agency refused to back down from its findings in the four fatalities that occurred in the weeks after the Sun’s first stories appeared.
Yet as the massive Strip projects enter their final year, questions remain.
Over the summer, the Center for Construction Research and Training, a building trades-affiliated research group, was granted full access to CityCenter and Cosmopolitan sites to conduct safety studies as part of the union agreement that ended the walkout.
The group found that Perini was sending mixed messages about the importance of safety to workers, avoiding finding the root causes of accidents and instead placing full blame on workers, and is perceived by some workers as placing scheduling concerns ahead of safety, according to two studies. (Two more have yet to be released.)
The group recommended moves that Perini management could make to address safety.
The company has not issued a formal response to the reports. It refused to comment for this story. Some people involved say Perini representatives have indicated that they intend to follow at least some of the suggestions and may be open to continuing to receive guidance from the construction research center.
“Even if you thought you were doing everything you could, you can always be improving what you’re doing,” said Pete Stafford, executive director of the center. Stafford said he could not comment on specifics of the report until he receives a response from Perini.
“Somewhere along the line, from the CEO down to rank and file guy on deck, that’s a lot of levels there, and you think you’re doing everything, you think you have good safety culture at the top, but by the time it gets to the bottom that’s not necessarily the case,” Stafford said.