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4 Firms Fined in Bridge Painter’s Death

Friday, May 11, 2012

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A Michigan industrial painting contractor bears the most responsibility among four companies cited in the death of a painter who fell from Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge in January and drowned, state safety officials have determined.

The Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) has fined Seaway Painting LLC and three other companies a total of $107,900 in the death of Kent Morton, 27, who plunged 140 feet into the Detroit River on Jan. 12 from scaffolding suspended under the bridge.

 Painter Kent Morton, 27, fell 140 feet into the Detroit River.
Painter Kent Morton, 27, fell 140 feet into the Detroit River.

The accident occurred during work on the $230 million Ambassador Bridge/Gateway project. The bridge connects Detroit and Windsor, Ontario.

‘Employee was Not Protected’

Most of the fine and citations went to Seaway, Morton’s employer, which has been cited for 29 serious violations in the last decade. The industrial painting contractor was founded in 1964 and is based in Livonia, MI.

“The investigation found that the employer did not erect the suspended scaffold in accordance with the scaffold design, did not follow the procedures for erecting and dismantling the suspended scaffold as outlined by the scaffold manufacturer, and did not ensure employees were protected from falling while dismantling the scaffold,” MIOSHA reported in its Fact Sheet on the investigation.

“The employee was not protected with a personal fall arrest system while dismantling the scaffold and fell nearly 140 feet into the Detroit River. The river was approximately 40 feet deep. There were no lifesaving boats or ring buoys available at the location.”

13 Citations, $67,000 Fine

MIOSHA cited Seaway for 13 serious violations and eight other-than-serious violations and fined the company a total of $67,000. Of those totals, eight serious violations and $56,000 in fines were related to Morton’s death. The rest involved scaffolding violations found elsewhere at the site during the same inspection.

Seaway was found liable in three capacities: as a contractor doing work on site; as a “creating contractor,” for exposing employees of other contractors to hazards; and as a “correcting employer,” for not correcting hazards before or during the work.

“Seaway Painting LLC is well aware of their responsibility to protect their workers,” MIOSHA reported. “The company has been inspected 15 times in the past 10 years and has been issued 29 serious violations.”

Company Response

In a statement issued Friday (May 11), Seaway President Steve Vlahakis said the company had been “devastated” by Morton’s death but was not responsible for the accident.

“Seaway Painting LLC does not believe any alleged conduct attributed to Seaway Painting LLC merits reaching a conclusion that Seaway Painting LLC was in any way responsible for the death of Kent Morton,” the statement said.  “Seaway Painting LLC is confident that none of its actions or conduct warrant a finding that Seaway Painting LLC acted with intentional disregard for safety or was indifferent to safety requirements.”

Vlahakis said the company “considers the issuance of citations reflecting on safety a very serious matter.” He added: “Our safety program includes comprehensive training, as well as ongoing reiterations and enforcement of safety requirements.”

Vlahakis said the company would not address the specifics of the citations at this time.

Accident Details

MIOSHA’s investigation determined that the accident occurred as Morton and two other Seaway employees were moving the suspended scaffolding from the bridge’s central span to the south span. The scaffolding was originally erected by a third-party contractor, who was found blameless for the accident.

 Seaway Painting completed a facelift on the Ambassador Bridge in 2000. At its highest point, the bridge rises 152 feet above the Detroit River.

 Seaway Painting LLC

Seaway Painting completed a facelift on the Ambassador Bridge in 2000. At its highest point, the bridge rises 152 feet above the Detroit River.

MIOSHA said the workers had been moving the final row of scaffold deck sheets when one of three cables supporting a deck sheet “shifted unexpectedly, causing one end to tilt down” while Morton was standing on it without a fall arrest system.

“The two other supporting cables then shifted, and the deck sheet dropped down even further to almost vertical, causing the employee to fall nearly 140 feet into the Detroit River,” the report said. “The employee was observed briefly surfacing and then floundered as the current swept him down the river.

“The employee disappeared underwater and did not resurface. The victim’s body was found several weeks later.”

Other Companies Cited

MIOSHA also cited the following companies.

Walter Toebe Construction Co.

Walter Toebe, of Wixom, MI, is the general contractor for the $230 million Ambassador Bridge/Gateway project and was found liable in its capacity as the “controlling contractor” on the site.

The company was issued 11 serious violations and fined $28,700. Two violations related to Morton’s death; the rest involved other fall protection and scaffolding hazards found elsewhere at the site during the same inspection.

 Walter Toebe Construction

 Walter Toebe Construction

Walter Toebe is the prime contractor for the $230 million Ambassador Bridge/Gateway Project, which includes reconstruction of I-96 and I-75 in downtown Detroit.

“Walter Toebe Construction Co. is well aware of their responsibility to protect their workers,” MIOSHA’s report said. “The company has been inspected 44 times in the past 10 years and has been issued 56 serious violations.”

In a statement Friday, Walter Toebe General Manager Robert V. Jones said the company was “both surprised and disappointed with MIOSHA’s decision to cite our company for the accident that took place on the Ambassador Bridge involving Seaway Painting.  We have just received the citations and are in the process of reviewing them so we can respond accordingly.” 

Rauhorn Electric Co.

Rauhorn Electric, of Macomb, MI, was issued three serious violations and fined a total of $8,900. The violations involved serious electrical hazards not related to Morton’s death, but found on the same inspection. Rauhorn was demolishing electrical lighting and other equipment on the bridge.

“Rauhorn Electric Co. is well aware of their responsibility to protect their workers,” MIOSHA reported. “The company has been inspected 14 times in the past 10 years and has been issued five serious violations.”

Rauhorn did not respond Friday to a request for comment.

Soil and Materials Engineers Inc.

SME, of Bay City, MI, was issued two serious violations and fined a total of $3,300 for worksite hazards unrelated to Morton’s death. SME was providing quality assurance for the work being performed.

MIOSHA said it had inspected the company once in 10 years. These are the company's first citations.

SME did not respond Friday to a request for comment.

Similar Accident

Morton’s fatal fall was similar to one that claimed the life of Jamie Barker, a Canadian painter, on the bridge in 2000. Barker was working on a platform that collapsed, and he fell into the river on the Canadian side. His body was recovered months later.

In 2001, two painters were rescued from the U.S. side of the bridge after a scaffolding collapse left them dangling more than 100 feet above the river.

After Barker’s death, a coroner’s inquest made 50 recommendations to improve the safety of workers on the bridge.


Tagged categories: Accidents; Bridges; Citations; Fall protection; Health and safety; Industrial Contractors; OSHA; Painters; Scaffolding

Comment from Lynda Kortlang, (5/14/2012, 10:14 AM)

Time and time again we read about scaffolding collapes causing the death of a worker. When are we, as individual workers going to see scaffolding built wrong and just walk by it. When are we, in the construction industry going to wake to the fact that scaffolding must be put together properly with the correct connecting devices. I am aware, as are the workers that the scaffolding mantlers and dismantlers do not have to tie off. What a stupid rule. I have been in the construction industry for 30 yrs. and over and over again I see this type of stupidity leading to death of a worker. We all think it can't happen to us? No not us! But it does. Wake up guys. Your employer does not really care if you die or not. You are replaceable. Your family will suffer your loss and you won't get the chance to grow old with them. Those are the facts. OSHA 1926 Subpart L should be read and re-read to fully understand these most important rules. And those of you out there that think you should not be tied off should have your heads examined.

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