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Repairs, Fines, OSHA Follow Bridge Fire

Friday, September 9, 2016

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Steep fines and a federal safety investigation await the contractor held responsible for the fire that closed down the Liberty Bridge in Pittsburgh last week. Meanwhile, crews remain hard at work to have the main artery span repaired and open to travel for the start of the next workweek.

Damage, Structural Integrity

The 88-year-old Liberty Bridge is a 26-span, 2,663-foot-long cantilever viaduct structure over the Monongahela River. The bridge has been undergoing an $85 million rehabilitation that includes cleaning and recoating of all structural steel surfaces on the bridge and approaches. The contract was awarded to the Joseph B. Fay Co., of Tarentum, PA.

Liberty Bridge underside
Photos: Technology Publishing Co.

Following a fire during renovation of the Liberty Bridge, contractor Joseph B. Fay Co. faces fines of more than $200,000 for the unexpected closure. Repairs are underway with a goal of having the span open by morning rush Monday (Sept. 12).

The fire occurred Friday (Sept. 2) when sparks from a torch are thought to have ignited plastic ventilation piping and then spread to a nearby containment tarp.

The fire was extinguished in about 30 minutes, but officials from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation indicated that heat from the blaze caused a 30-foot compression chord to buckle.

No one was injured in the incident, but the bridge was immediately closed to traffic and firefighting and construction equipment was moved off of the structure, which was at risk of collapse.

The damage occurred at “absolutely the most sensitive spot,” Lou Ruzzi, PennDOT district bridge engineer, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Thursday (Sept. 8).

The fire reportedly caused the chord to bend about six inches out of place and compress by one and five-eighths inches. The chord sits at a critical juncture, at Pier 7 on one of two concrete piers set in the river, and carries the most load, according to Ruzzi. Designed to withstand 2.4 million pounds of pressure, the fire damage reduced that load to about 2 million pounds of pressure, he said.

AWK Consulting Engineers, of nearby Turtle Creek, PA, has equipment onsite to monitor for movement in the bridge every half hour, 24 hours a day. According to the surveying device, the structure has moved less than 1/1000th of an inch since the fire, the area paper said.

Stresses on the bridge will continue to be monitored throughout the repair process and after, officials said.

Preparing for Repairs

The approved design for repairs includes jacking up the bridge to place a plate and two support beams in the damaged area, the Post-Gazette reported. The braces were designed through consultation between PennDOT, engineers, and experts from Carnegie Mellon and Lehigh universities.

The materials were already being fabricated, and prep work for their installation was underway, PennDOT District Executive Dan Cessna said.

Sources said workers had carefully removed approximately 200 rivets that attached the damaged chord and replaced them with bolts. This was done in a prescribed pattern, moving from one corner of the beam to another, so that the replacement didn’t create too much pressure on any one area.

The chord was then painted in preparation for installation of the two 26.5-foot braces that will be attached on both side of the damaged chord.

Officials indicated that jacks—and possibly the application of heat—will be used in an attempt to pull the chord back to its original length before attaching the braces.

"Now you're looking at a temporary solution that is practical and quick so we can get the bridge reopened and traffic restored in the region," Cessna told news station WPXI.

"The reality is we only have to fix 30 feet of the bridge," he added. "It's a very small area that needs a repair. It's not like replacing an entire deck on the bridge."

Contractor Penalties

Fay is said to be working to have the bridge repaired and reopened to vehicular traffic by Monday morning (Sept. 12).

In the meantime, per the terms of its contract with PennDOT, the firm faces fines of more than $200,000 each day the bridge remains closed. The penalty for the unexpected closure is said to be $8,400 an hour; the contractor faces an additional $12,000-a-day fine for the related closure of an access ramp to the bridge.

Cessna told the area paper the final amount "will come down to the hour, or any portion thereof."

However, he emphasized that "The fines are in place because the bridge is out of service, not because this incident occurred," the local ABC affiliate reported.

Liberty Bridge from river

OSHA investigators arrived on site Wednesday (Sept. 7) and will conduct an inspection regarding safety of the construction site, while also looking at Fay's preparations for potential fires.

PennDOT and Fay have a long working relationship; the contractor currently holds six contracts with the agency totaling $380 million.

"They're committed 100 percent, as is PennDOT, to resolve this issue and get this bridge back in service," Cessna noted, adding that the contractor remains in good standing with the agency.

Ensuring Worker Safety

As of Wednesday (Sept. 7), federal safety regulators have opened an investigation into the incident, multiple sources reported.

Officials from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration will examine the events that led to the fire, as well as to ensure that the construction site is safe for the workers.

OSHA Area Director Christopher Robinson said the inspection would determine whether Fay had suitable fire suppression equipment on site and whether someone had been made responsible for watching for potential fires.

Another official told WPXI that inspectors would also identify any “apparent violations that can be corrected immediately.”

The investigation of conditions at the bridge site could take up to six months, according to OSHA. The agency will issue citations and fines for any violations found.


Tagged categories: Bridges; Citations; Containment; Department of Transportation (DOT); Fire; Government contracts; Health & Safety; Health and safety; Inspection; Joseph B. Fay Co.; North America; OSHA; Safety; Steel; Ventilation; Violations

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