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Probes, Changes Follow Death of NY Tunnel Worker

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

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An investigation is underway and safety procedures have changed after a young New York tunnel worker was fatally struck by a section of falling concrete while working alongside his father.

Michael O’Brien, 26, died just three days after a transit agency official voiced concern about the rising number of injuries on the rail project.

 MTA / Patrick Cushin

 MTA / Patrick Cushin

Tunneling continues 120 feet below Manhattan on the $7.3 billion project to bring Long Island Rail Road service to Grand Central Terminal.

Despite desperate attempts to administer CPR, project supervisor Robert O’Brien was unable to save his son after he was struck Thursday (Nov. 17) while working on a Long Island Rail Road project.

3 Weeks on the Job

Both O’Briens were “sandhogs” (tunnel diggers, conducting drilling, blasting and concrete pouring), working 120 feet below MTA’s East Side Access site on the $7.3 billion project to bring LIRR service to Grand Central Terminal.

Working with his father, Michael O’Brien had been spraying shotkrete—concrete or mortar applied with a high-pressure hose—when he was struck by a chunk of concrete. He died that evening at a local hospital.

The younger O’Brien was from Wisconsin and moved just three weeks before to take the job with his father, reports said.

The New York Times reported that O’Brien had worked on tunneling projects in Wisconsin, but had developed a drug abuse problem after he was seriously injured in an accident, according to his former lawyer, Barbara J. Privat.

Injuries Raise Concerns

Three days before the accident, an MTA official expressed concern at a public meeting about the project’s rising injury rate.

Michael Horodniceanu, head of capital construction, told the Long Island Rail Road committee that his agency’s higher-ups were “concerned” about the injury toll on the project.

“We are looking at it very carefully,” Horodniceanu told the committee, the New York Post reported this week.

Horodniceanu said his agency was investigating the increase and would have more information at the next committee meeting in December.

“At this point, I don’t have the answers,” he said, according to the Post.

MTA figures show 2.8 injuries for every 200,000 hours worked at the East Side Access site in September, up from 2.0 in January 2010.

Crews have been working around the clock on the project, which is behind schedule and over budget.

3 OSHA Inspections in 2011

A statement from contractor Dragados/Judlau, for whom the O’Briens worked, said it was voluntarily suspending work pending investigation of the accident.  Work continued elsewhere on the project.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is investigating O’Brien’s death, has already inspected the site three times this year, including once in February after a worker was injured in a collision underground, the Post reported.

OSHA also inspected the site last month after a rail car struck an aerial lift.

Safety Changes Ordered

This week, MTA announced new safety procedures on the site.

MTA officials said they were prohibiting workers from standing under fresh concrete for 90 minutes, to ensure that it is fully dry.

"What is important here is that our sandhogs and our contractors follow the work rules and we're training them," said Horodniceanu. "We trained them Friday; we're training them again today, to make sure that we are abiding by the new procedures that were put in place."

An MTA spokesman added: “We are working closely with Dragados/Judlau to reinforce the importance of continual vigilance and adherence to safety procedures.”

‘Not a Waste’

The agency also issued a statement expressing condolences.

"Everyone associated with the project is heartbroken over the loss of Michael O'Brien,” the statement said.  “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends and co-workers.”

O’Brien’s mother, Judee O’Brien, told the New York Times that her son was “a loving, caring, generous son and brother, and we’re very, very proud of him. He was very passionate about his work, and we’re going to miss him more than anything in the world.”

Local 147 official Richard Fitzsimmons said O’Brien’s death was not in vain.

“The sacrifices that we are making today will serve this region for a minimum of 150 years,” said Fitzsimmons. “He did die, but it’s not a waste. We’re building something that’ll be around for generations.”


Tagged categories: Concrete; Fatalities; Health and safety; Rail; Transportation; Tunnel

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