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Firms Cited in Border Scaffold Failure

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

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Three contractors have been cited in a massive scaffolding collapse that crushed cars and injured motorists and employees at California’s San Ysidro border crossing in September.

The light-duty scaffolding was enormously overloaded with asbestos-laced debris, soaked coating waste, plaster and stucco dropped on it by untrained workers, California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) has found.

 Northbound traffic in Tijuana, Mexico, waits at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, the world’s busiest land border crossing.

 Wikimedia Commons

Northbound traffic in Tijuana, Mexico, waits at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, the world’s busiest land border crossing.

Between 17 and 25 workers were on the 50-by-50-foot structure when it collapsed onto eight northbound lanes Sept. 14, crushing 15 cars.

Six workers fell about 18 feet to the ground; four were taken to the hospital, and two were admitted with serious injuries. Several motorists were also injured by the rain of concrete, metal, wooden planks and debris. In all, 14 people were treated at the scene.

The San Ysidro Port of Entry is the world’s busiest land border crossing, processing more than 50 million travelers each year.

Coating Removal Cited

The scaffolding had been erected by Vertical Access Inc., based in Ithaca, NY. The scaffold was designed as a light-duty structure (25 pounds/square foot) at the request of Miller Environmental Inc. of Anaheim, CA, whose employees would work on it. Upon completion of the structure, the scaffolding was signed over to Miller Environmental for daily inspection by a competent person.

Miller Environmental, a subcontractor, was removing asbestos from the site before a building was to be demolished. Part of that task involved removing fire-protective coating scraped from the beams and underside of the pan-decking. Witnesses said the fire-proofing was relatively light (about two pounds per square foot) when dry, but doubled in weight when wet.

Miller’s initial abatement plan called for the contractor to use “a large industrial vacuum to remove the wet fire-proofing as it was scraped from the beam” and then collect the material in a receptacle away from the scaffolding, Cal/OSHA documents report. “But early on in the abatement efforts, it was discovered that the vacuum system was not working, so Miller Environmental abandoned that method of collecting fire-proofing material,” the report says.

‘No Knowledge’ of Load Limits

The workers then decided to temporarily store the soaked coating waste on the scaffold along with a false ceiling they were demolishing. The ceiling consisted of double-thickness stucco, metal lath and supportive black iron and weighed 18-20 pounds per square foot. The ceiling and wet paint waste “left little room” for the additional weight of the workers and their tools, Cal/OSHA reported.

Cal/OSHA said Miller “routinely allowed large amounts of removed ACM (asbestos containing materials) to remain un-bagged, uncollected for days at a time on the scaffold from which employees were working.”

The report also says the Miller crew and supervisor “had no knowledge of the load limitations of the scaffold.” Interviewed later, the crew leader told investigators that the scaffold could handle 700 pounds per square foot.

Investigators said there was “no evidence to show that anyone knew how to avoid creating a dangerous point-loading hazard on the scaffold.” Estimates placed the weight of the debris on the scaffolding at between 91,760 pounds and 101,572 pounds—at least six dumpsters’ worth, Cal/OSHA’s report says.

Cal/OSHA cited Miller for two violations and fined the company $19,120.

In addition, Cal/OSHA fined Colorado-based Hensel Phelps Construction Co. (the project’s general contractor) and San Diego-based AMG Demolition and Environmental Service $18,000 each for one “serious accident-related” violation, for allowing the scaffold to be overloaded

Vertical Access was not cited.

OSHA Records

OSHA records show frequent inspections, with no violations, of multiple Hensel Phelps projects in recent years. AMG was inspected once in 2011, and no violations were found, the records show.

Miller Environmental has had several encounters with OSHA, however, according to records.

In 2007, one employee lost a finger when another worker accidentally let go of a large piece of scrap metal the two were carrying. The injured employee was also found to be using a false identity in order to work. OSHA cited the company for one serious and one non-serious violation and imposed $18,000 in fines. Upon settlement, however, the fine was reduced to a total of $935 and the “serious” violation reclassified as non-serious.

In 2010, Miller was issued one serious and one non-serious citation and fined $18,400. The serious violation has been withdrawn and the total fine reduced to $325, although the case remains officially open.

In July 2011, the company was cited for one serious and one non-serious violation and fined a total of $18,750. That case also remains open.

Miller Environmental did not respond Tuesday (March 20) to a request for comment.

Crossing Project Resumes

Construction at San Ysidro resumed a week after the collapse.

The five-year, $577 million project involves rerouting vehicle traffic from the west side of the border crossing through the center of the port and installing temporary utilities and footings for a new secondary inspection area.

The current administration building and pedestrian walkway over the primary inspection lanes will be razed and replaced.


Tagged categories: Access; Accidents; Asbestos; Containment; Contractors; Fire-resistive coatings; Health and safety; Paint and coatings removal; Regulations; Scaffolding

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