Tuesday, June 3, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Construction workers shut down MGM Mirage’s CityCenter at midnight Monday, walking off the job to protest safety conditions at the $9.2 billion project.
Workers also began picketing outside of CityCenter, holding signs that read, “unsafe job site.”
Union leaders said workers will picket the site until the general contractor, Perini Building Company, agrees to take steps to improve safety. Work usually goes on around the clock at CityCenter, the largest private commercial development in U.S. history.
A rash of fatal construction accidents on the Las Vegas Strip has shaken workers and caught the attention and concern of national labor leaders, safety experts and elected officials. But until Monday, many local union leaders had been reluctant to express concerns publicly about safety. That changed after Saturday’s death of Dustin Tarter, a 39-year-old operating engineer from Boulder City.
Tarter became the sixth worker to die at CityCenter and the ninth to die in a year and a half on sites overseen by general contracting giant Perini Building Co. In all, 11 workers have died on Strip projects in that period.
Tarter, who worked as a crane oiler for Dielco Crane Service, was crushed Saturday morning when he got stuck between the counterweight of the crane and the track of the crane.
Union leaders said Monday afternoon they were prepared to take action if Perini did not agree to their demands by midnight. At a news conference, rows of leaders from most of the local building trades unions stood behind Steve Ross, head of the Southern Nevada Building and Construction Trades Council, as he announced that union leaders had voted unanimously to demand that Perini take three steps. They want the company to agree to pay for additional safety training for workers, allow national union researchers to examine root causes of safety problems on the site, and allow union leaders full access to the work site.
“It’s time to stop talking about worker safety and time to start putting into place policies that are going to improve worker safety on this job site,” Ross said.
Talks between Perini and unions broke off sometime before 9 p.m. Monday. Perini representatives did not return calls from the Sun.
Ross and Steve Redlinger, a Building Trades consultant, said Perini had already agreed informally to the group’s demands but had not followed through.
“There was a tacit agreement that these things would be no problem, but the problem is in the follow-up,” Redlinger said.
The Las Vegas Sun reported in March that state safety regulators found that a pattern of contractor safety violations contributed to deaths on numerous Strip construction sites. Those violations included inadequate training of workers, the use of faulty equipment and failure to cover holes in decking or place temporary safety floors or nets beneath workers to break any falls.
Many of those findings were later overturned during informal conferences between employers and Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration administrators. Contractors succeeded in arguing that the workers themselves were responsible for or contributed to their deaths.
The deaths have prompted discussions at union halls, contractor offices and construction sites.
Many workers say speed is the main underlying cause: Crowded work sites, pressure to finish work quickly and fatigue from extensive overtime lead to unsafe conditions, they say.
That view was discussed by union leaders at the building trades council meeting Monday, according to a union official involved in the discussions.
“Contractors will do things that are not safe to accelerate schedules,” said the source. “We can train and train and train our workers but it all boils down to scheduling on the subsite and we’re tired of the response from the general contractor, which says it’s the owner’s mandate. It’s not acceptable. We want to look at every issue.”
MGM Mirage spokesman Alan Feldman said Monday that safety problems are attributable to workers not following procedure.
“It seems to us that there are a lot of safety programs, a lot of safety instruction, safety seminars and meetings, safety officers and signage,” said Feldman, who called Tarter’s death “a very tragic reminder of the need for all workers to follow safety rules.”
Details surrounding Tarter’s death were still unclear Monday, and OSHA would not comment on its investigation. Tarter’s employer, Dielco Crane Services, also declined to comment.
Tarter was born and raised in Boulder City and construction ran in the family, said Ryan Walters, his half-brother and a member of Laborers Local 872. Dustin’s father, Richard, was a plumber-pipefitter who died in a construction accident in San Diego about 10 years ago, Walters said.
The last month has been particularly hard on the family. Dustin’s brother, Richard, died on May 8 in a motorcycle accident. He was a union carpenter who had worked at CityCenter and most recently at Echelon.
Walters described his half-brother as an avid outdoorsman who loved riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle, boating on Lake Mead, hunting, fishing and skiing. “He loved life in general,” Walters said. “He was very loving, caring and he loved his family.”
The action from the local unions following Tarter’s death comes after months of outspoken concern from Mark Ayers, the head of the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Department, as well as researchers with the department’s research center, the Center for Construction Research and Training.
Ayers contacted Ross several months ago after becoming worried about the spate of deaths at CityCenter. Ayers suggested that Ross negotiate with Perini to allow the organization’s researchers to examine the site and the circumstances surrounding the accidents for root causes of safety problems.
But progress stalled as attention from local leaders turned to ensuring that all workers at CityCenter take a ten-hour OSHA class in safety. Many have already taken the course through their apprenticeship program.
Last month, Ayers met with Ross in Las Vegas to again offer the local Council his group’s services to evaluate safety at CityCenter. According to Redlinger, Perini said it would agree to the safety training and to allow the researchers to access the site, but the company did not follow through on a formal agreement.
Construction safety in Las Vegas, as well as in New York City, is expected to be a major topic of conversation at a closed retreat this week that Ayers is holding with the presidents of member building trades unions, and the group plans to come up with an action plan.
“Almost every death on a construction site is preventable,” Ayers said in a statement Friday following the fatal crane accident in New York City.
Sun reporter Michael J. Mishak contributed to this story.