One emergency radio system—rather than a protracted chain of cell-phone calls—could have helped save the life of bridge worker Tilden Billiot, a federal review panel has concluded.
As it was, notification delays meant that no lifesaving skiffs were "immediately available" to reach the crane operator after his unsteady rig toppled onto a guardrail, knocking him unconscious for several minutes and then dropping him into Lake Pontchartrain, the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission has ruled.
Billiot died two weeks after the 2008 accident.
Now, the Review Commission has upheld citations for two serious violations and $10,000 in fines imposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration against Boh Brothers Construction Co. LLC in Billiot's death.
Boh Brothers Construction
Tilden Billiot Sr. fell in near the bridge's north shore. Boh Brothers' two manned boats that day were stationed on the south shore several miles away.
The Review Commission is an independent federal agency that adjudicates appeals on OSHA cases.
Boh Brothers said in a statement late Wednesday (March 13): "We are reviewing the recent Occupational Safety & Health Review Commission decision. Because we strongly disagree with the findings, we are actively conferring with our attorney on the advisability of an appeal to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals."
The case stems from an accident Dec. 23, 2008, on the Interstate 10 Twin Spans connecting New Orleans and Slidell, LA, over Lake Ponchartrain. The bridges are about five miles long.
Boh Brothers was the general contractor for the Louisiana Department of Transportation project, which was completed in June 2012. The project, budgeted at $379 million, was completed 10 months ahead of schedule for $429 million.
Billiot was operating a crane on the bridge near the north shore when the equipment tipped over, landing on the guardrail.
Employees rushed to hold the crane and keep it from falling into the lake, authorities said, but "after about six minutes of the cab dangling over the water, [Billiot's] unconscious body slipped through the broken glass and into Lake Pontchartrain," according to a lawsuit filed later by Billiot's widow. Billiot died Jan. 9 from complications of drowning and blunt force trauma.
Boats and Phone Calls
According to the Review Commission, Boh Brothers had more than a dozen boats at the project site for transporting workers and materials and for emergencies.
On the day of the accident, two of the boats were continuously manned by Boh supervisors, the panel noted. In addition, each Boh foreman was assigned a boat and was responsible for using it in case of emergency. Still other boats were docked at other locations.
Despite the available craft, a rescue was not immediate.
When the crane fell, the crane operations foreman used a cell phone to call the senior project superintendent to report the accident. The superintendent then phoned several people, including another foreman on the north shore.
By the time that foreman received the call, he had already learned of the accident from another employee who had driven to the work area. The foreman had used his cell phone to call the lead boatman, who used a regular marine radio to contact the other Boh skipper.
A federal review board criticized the communications chain that led to a delay in rescuing Tilden Billiot Sr.
Meanwhile, both of the manned boats assigned to transport and emergency duty that day were on several miles away on the south shore, the parties agreed. Those boats had a maximum speed of about 30 mph.
After the second skipper was notified, it took him "at least six to eight minutes" to reach Billiot in the water, the commission noted.
OSHA Section 1926.106(d) regulations state: At least one lifesaving skiff shall be immediately available at locations where employees are working over or adjacent to water."
The standard does not define the phrase "immediately available," but a 1991 OSHA interpretation letter establishes multiple criteria.
That letter also notes: [P]ermanent brain damage can occur in a drowning victim within three to four minutes of oxygen deprivation."
The Review Commission found that Boh had a sufficient number of operators and boats, but that its system was undermined by its communications.
"As to Boh’s means of communicating a water emergency, the actions of Boh employees on the day of the accident demonstrate that the company relied on a system that was indirect," the commission found.
Every boat operator should have been equipped with a radio with emergency broadcast channel that "would have permitted direct and simultaneous communication with all personnel assigned to water rescue duties," the commission said.
The type of boat required was not at issue. The Review Commission said it considered the term "lifesaving skiffs" and "boats" interchangeable.
Boh Brothers Construction
The ruling also said that the company did not comply with the crane manual.
On the other hand, the two boat operators could not be considered "immediately available" for emergencies because each had other assigned duties, the panel ruled.
"...Boh could not have reasonably relied on its two manned boats to rescue a worker near the north shore within three to four minutes," the ruling said.
The commission rejected Boh's contention that its emergency response should be measured from the time Billiot landed in the water, rather than from the first call for help. The "exact time the crane operator fell into the water has no bearing on whether Boh's system was adequate under the cited standard," the commission found.
Furthermore, the commission found, Boh "had actual knowledge that a lifesaving skiff was not immediately available" because both its safety representative and senior superintendent knew that the only manned boats were on the south shore, while the work that day was taking place on the north shore.
The commission also upheld a second citation for a serious violation of a crane operation standard. The crane was being used on an uneven deck surface.
Billiot had taken over the day before the accident for another operator. The commission found that he did not comply with the crane operator's manual, which specifically warns against traveling with a suspended load on an uneven surface.
The commission said it was "common knowledge" that the bridge was not level and that Billiot's supervisor could see that Billiot was not operating the crane as directed.
That lapse does not reflect employee misconduct, as Boh contended, but was a result of the company's policy, the commission said.