The dangers of New York subway construction are drawing closer federal scrutiny, with new citations issued against contractors for excessive silica exposure and a runaway rail car just weeks apart.
Meanwhile, a third investigation continues into the death of a 26-year-old worker who was killed by a slab of falling concrete during the same period.
|“Sandhogs” spraying shotkrete were exposed to three times the permissible limit for silica on the Second Avenue Subway project, OSHA found.|
That worker died just days after a transit agency official voiced concern about the project’s rising injury rate.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued the silica citations earlier this month. They allege that workers spraying shotkrete on the 2nd Avenue Subway project were exposed to more than three times the permissible limit of toxic silica dust when air samples were taken on Nov. 9. The violation, classified as serious, carries an $8,500 fine.
OSHA cited SSK both for the excessive exposure and for failure to properly fit employees with respirators. The employees were spraying shotkrete on the walls of the 65-by-65-foot tunnel some 80 feet below the street, OSHA said.
Although two of the SSK workers (called “sandhogs”) told an OSHA inspector that they had been medically evaluated for the work and fit-tested for their respirators, the contractor later told OSHA that “these records could not be located.”
Overexposure to silica, a human carcinogen, can lead to silicosis, an incurable lung disease that can be fatal.
‘2nd Avenue Cough’
Area residents have complained about dust from the project—even nicknaming the effects “the Second Avenue cough”—but Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) officials insist that the underground dusts do not rise to street level.
The $447 million project has been underway since April 2007 and is scheduled to be completed in 2015.
SSK was cited at the same site in May 2011 for blasting inspection violations. The original three serious violations and $10,500 fine were reduced to one other-than-serious violation and a $3,500 fine.
Meanwhile, at the subway’s East Side Tunnel Access Project, general contractor Dragados USA-Judlau JV has been newly cited for 11 serious safety violations and fined $48,000 after a runaway rail car struck an aerial lift Oct. 15, injuring two lift workers.
OSHA found that the wheels of the rail car had not been chocked, and a safety chain had not been attached to prevent the car from rolling away while it was being disconnected from the rest of the train.
|An arch form is used for tunnel concrete operations on the east tunnel of the Second Avenue Subway.|
Workers in the aerial lift farther down the track lacked a radio or watch person to warn them of the approaching runaway car, and the car lacked lights that would have alerted workers in the tunnel.
In addition, OSHA said, the employer did not conduct inspections to ensure that proper safety procedures were followed to prevent a runaway rail car.
‘Essential but Dangerous Work’
"Underground construction is essential but dangerous work,” said Kay Gee, OSHA's area director in Manhattan.
“It's also essential that effective worker safeguards are in place and in use at all times. That was not the case here. This incident would have been avoided if the employer had followed proper safety procedures, inspected for and corrected deficiencies, and provided adequate training to employees.”
The inspection identified additional hazards involving unsecured compressed gas cylinders, damaged guardrails on the aerial lift, unprotected steel reinforcement rods sticking out of the tunnel's floors and walls, ungrounded electrical cords, a damaged ladder cage, and the employer's failure to train employees in recognizing and avoiding tunneling hazards.
A serious violation reflects “substantial probability” of death or serious injury from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known.
The runaway-car episode came just one month before the death of Michael O’Brien, 26, who perished at the East Side Tunnel site while working alongside his father.
O’Brien, another “sandhog,” had also been spraying shotkrete when he was struck by a chunk of concrete that fell from the tunnel roof Nov. 17. He had worked on other tunnel projects in another state but had just started this job about three weeks before he was killed, reports said.
|One worker was killed in November and two were injured in October at the East Side Tunnel Access project, which is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.|
The O’Briens had been working 120 feet below ground on the project to bring Long Island Rail Road service to Grand Central Terminal. Crews have been working three shifts on the project, which is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.
What began as a $3 billion project to be completed by 2013 has become a $7.3 billion project to be completed in 2018.
O’Brien also worked for Dragados-Judlau. An OSHA spokesman said Tuesday (March 27) that O’Brien’s death was still under investigation. OSHA investigations typically take about six months.
OSHA also inspected the site in February after a worker was injured in a collision underground, the New York Post reported. No citations have been issued.
Injuries Raise Concerns
MTA announced new safety procedures on the site after O’Brien died.
Three days before the accident, an MTA official expressed concern at a public meeting about the project’s rising injury rate.
MTA figures showed 2.8 injuries for every 200,000 hours worked at the East Side Access site in September, up from 2.0 in January 2010.
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.
No results of that investigation have been released.