Construction Boom Leading to More Wash. Job-Site Accidents, Death

June 13, 2007

The number of workplace deaths and accidents is on the rise as construction continues its boom in King County, Wash., according to state statistics.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that accidents and deaths on the job have declined overall in Washington and across the country. But in King County in 2006, 14 people died in job-site accidents, according to the newspaper’s analysis of statistics from the state Department of Labor and Industries. The county’s five-year average was about nine workers killed on the job.

Mechanic Bruce Merryman, 49, was killed Feb. 7 in one of a string of high-profile workplace accidents in the county this year. He died when the service locomotive he was on went out of control in the Beacon Hill tunnel.

Other job-site fatalities include workers crushed to death at a South Seattle metal recycler and at the Port of Seattle, and a contractor was electrocuted at a Federal Way amusement park.

A worker last week had to be rescued from a 40-foot-deep hole at a construction site after suffering non-life-threatening injuries.

In 2005, Tyler Scott was cutting rock to prepare for a light rail station in Seattle’s Beacon Hill area when a tangle of hydraulic lines fell on him, destroying his right knee.

Scott returned to Kalispell, Mont., and no longer works construction, but says there’s more pressure on construction workers to produce.

“These guys are being pushed,” the former Des Moines resident said. “It’s production, production, production.”

Injury rates remain high in the building trades, in natural resource extraction and in some manufacturing industries.

That’s partly because some employers aren’t making safety a priority, said Leonard Smith, a spokesman for the Teamsters union local headquartered in Seattle.

“What we find is that there are generally two kinds of employers –those who view safety as an asset and those who view it as an impediment to making money,” Smith said.

The local has lost one worker this year, Afrian Vega. State investigators are reviewing the Jan. 17 accident at Seattle Iron & Metals Corp. that killed Vega.

The state’s inspectors-per-worker ratio ranks among the top in the nation, with 100 inspectors, said Rick Gleason, a safety trainer with the University of Washington and a former work-site inspector.

Idaho, for example, has just nine accident investigators for the entire state. By comparison, Gleason said, the Washington Legislature this year directed Labor and Industries to hire 11 inspectors assigned solely to examine and certify cranes.

“We’re getting safer,” he said. “But, if you’re one of the 90 (Washington state) workers that’s going to die this year, it doesn’t really matter.”

Construction employs about 7 percent of the nation’s work force, but accidents on construction sites accounted for about 21 percent of workplace deaths, Gleason said, citing numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Better safety equipment and stronger fall-protection rules have helped, Gleason said. But, he added, “construction as a whole has always been dangerous.”

The number of workplace deaths can vary between years, said Elaine Fischer, spokeswoman for Labor and Industries’ safety program.

“Injury rates have been dropping for the last decade,” Fischer said, adding that a few high-profile accidents “really brought the issue of workplace deaths to everyone’s mind.”

Usually, workplace accidents go largely unnoticed. For example, the 2004 death of Cesar Umayam, 50, attracted little public attention.

Umayam fell 15 feet through an uncovered, unguarded hole in the roof of a Clyde Hill home he was helping build. He was at Harborview Medical Center for 25 days before dying Oct. 19, 2004.

“There aren’t words for it,” said Diane Umayam, his widow. “They go to work, and you expect them to come home at night.”

The state cited Umayam’s employer, Elko Construction of Bellevue, for five violations and issued a $6,500 fine. The roofer on the project, Bruce’s Roofing LLC of Enumclaw, also was fined $18,000 for two violations.

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