New York’s Newburgh-Beacon Bridge Work Suspended Following Accidents on Project Labor Agreement Jobsite

0 June 17, 2013  State & Local Construction, Transportation & Infrastructure

Last week the New York Bridge Authority suspended work on the “Hamilton Fish” Newburgh-Beacon Bridge following two accidents on the $23 million contract. On June 13, a painter had to be airlifted to a hospital from the jobsite following an accident. A May 21 incident left two painters dangling from safety harnesses under the bridge (see article and image from May here).

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s regional office in Albany is investigating the accidents.

The jobsite is subject to a government-mandated project labor agreement (PLA). Proponents of PLAs claim these agreements, which discourage competition from qualified bidders by forcing contractors to hire most or all of their employees from designated union hiring halls and pay into union pension and benefit plans, guarantee a safe jobsite.

New York’s government utilizes PLAs on numerous taxpayer-funded construction projects, despite the fact that just 21.1 percent of the Empire State’s construction workforce is unionized. New York’s Executive Order No. 49, “Establishing Procedures to Consider, in its Proprietary Capacity, the Utilization of One or More Project Labor Agreements,” orders each State agency to establish procedures to consider, in its proprietary capacity, the utilization of  PLAs on public construction projects.
Newburgh NY Hamilton Fish Bridge

More from the Times Herald-Record on the accidents and investigation, which will reportedly not stop Kiska from starting another PLA project this summer, the $93.1 million redecking of the south span of the same bridge (“Bridge redecking still a go, Feds probe N’burgh-Beacon Bridge accidents,” 6/12/13):

Ongoing investigations into two bridge-painting accidents on the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge aren’t expected to keep the same contractor from starting the $93.1 million redecking of the south span this summer.

“We have no reason to believe any of this will affect the redecking, and we anticipate Kiska will begin that project on schedule,” said John Bellucci, the New York State Bridge Authority’s chief of staff.

Bellucci, however, said the authority will not authorize Kiska Construction of Long Island City to resume painting the north span until it “believes the working environment is as safe as possible.”

The authority suspended the $23 million project Thursday, shortly after a painter had to be airlifted to Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla. The painter, Renato Amaral, 46, of Newark, N.J., was injured inside the plastic bubble that surrounds the section of the bridge that is being painted and prevents contaminants from falling into the Hudson.

Amaral, whose injuries were not disclosed, couldn’t be reached, and his bridge painters union didn’t return calls. He reportedly was released from the hospital Friday.

Two other painters were left dangling off the bridge in their safety harnesses on May 21, after the scaffolding beneath them gave way. They were not injured.

“We are conducting extremely methodical and diligent investigations into both incidents, and we have pledged our full cooperation to OSHA as well,” said Bellucci, adding the authority prides itself on its “impeccable” safety record.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s regional office in Albany has also opened investigations into the accidents.

In 2005, an employee of Kiska USA, a division of Kiska Construction Corp. of Ankara, Turkey, died on another PLA bridge project in New York City, according to the newspaper:

Kiska’s OSHA history shows one accident, on the Willis Avenue Bridge in New York City in 2005, that resulted in the death of a carpenter. The man, who was installing fenders on a dock, apparently lost his balance when he was putting an air hose on a piece of equipment and fell into the Harlem River and drowned.

Had a contractor unwilling to sign a PLA been involved in multiple accidents, PLA advocates would be attacking the contractor and exploiting a tragedy to regain lost market share by making the case a PLA could have prevented the accident. Instead, construction trade union officials were quick to defend Kiska and protect their own interests:

“This is kind of shocking to us,” said Todd Diorio, president of the Hudson Valley Building and Construction Trades Council. “Kiska has a pretty good safety record, and we’ve had no complaints from our people who work with them about safety issues. We hope this doesn’t delay the redecking; we’re really counting on those jobs.”

Kiska didn’t return calls. The company, in addition to its two contracts with the authority, has a $13.5 million contract with the state Department of Transportation to rehabilitate 52 bridges in the Hudson Valley and active contracts with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Port Authority.

Diorio, like Bellucci, noted that bridge work is inherently dangerous and requires special equipment and training to meet federal safety regulations.

“It’s a touchy subject, because you can have all the equipment and training in the world and things can still go wrong,” Diorio said.

Diorio plans to request a meeting of the labor-management committee established in the project labor agreement for the redecking to discuss workplace and worker safety.

“We’ll be happy to arrange the meeting,” said Bellucci. “We welcome any opportunity to discuss safety.”

Let’s hope the injured make a speedy recovery and this PLA project is not subject to further accidents and delays.

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