Report 2005-119 Summary - February 2006

San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge Worker Safety:

Better State Oversight Is Needed to Ensure That Injuries Are Reported Properly and That Safety Issues Are Addressed

HIGHLIGHTS

Our review of safety oversight on the Skyway project of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge East Span replacement revealed the following:

  • The Division of Occupational Safety and Health (division) of the Department of Industrial Relations did not discover the potential underreporting of alleged workplace injuries and an alleged illness on the Skyway because it lacks procedures to ensure the reasonable accuracy of employer's annual injury reports.
  • The division failed to adequately followup on three of the six complaints received from Skyway workers, including an April 2004 complaint in which it found two alleged serious violations but did not issue citations to the contractor.
  • The California Department of Transportation's safety oversight of the Skyway project appears sufficient but improvements, such as increasing safety training and meeting attendance, could be made.

RESULTS IN BRIEF

To ensure the seismic safety of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge (Bay Bridge), the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) contracted with Kiewit/FCI/Manson, a joint venture (KFM), to build a large section of replacement for the East Span of the Bay Bridge. As of September 2005, Caltrans indicated this section, known as the Skyway, stretching most of the distance from Oakland to Yerba Buena Island, will cost $1.7 billion, and the East Span replacement will open to traffic in both directions in 2012. Skyway construction involves creating foundations, which consist of piles driven deep into the bay floor and then welded into metal boxes that hold them in place, and hoisting the bridge deck made of prefabricated segments into place with special heavy-lifting equipment.

Several issues relating to worker safety and health have been alleged through the media and employee complaints since construction began. The Division of Safety and Occupational Health (division), within the Department of Industrial Relations, is responsible for enforcing California's health and safety standards. In the spring of 2004, approximately two years after Skyway construction started, it began an informal partnership with KFM allowing the division to conduct periodic compliance assistance inspections. These inspections represented additional access to the site beyond what the division normally would have under state law. To obtain this additional access, the division agreed that no citations would be issued if KFM promptly corrected unsafe conditions or procedures identified during these compliance assistance inspections.

KFM's reported injury rates for the Skyway were approximately one-fourth the average injury rate of prime contractors on other large Bay Area bridge projects and approximately one-fourth to slightly more than one-third the state and national rates for construction. However, the division does not have a process to verify the reasonable accuracy of employers' annual injury reports from which injury rates are calculated, because according to the division's acting chief, the division believes that with its finite resources it must focus on higher priorities. As of September 2005, KFM has recorded 23 injuries in its annual injury reports. Based on evidence available to us, there are indications of 15 alleged workplace injuries and an alleged illness that potentially meet recording criteria. Because there were conflicting positions presented to us by the sources we reviewed and because we are not the entity to make the determination of whether injuries or illnesses are recordable, we notified the division of our concerns and it informed us that it opened a formal investigation into the matter. KFM has a safety program that includes elements identified by safety experts as necessary to promote a safe worksite, but experts note that one element in its safety program—the use of financial or other incentives as rewards for a safe workplace—may lead to the underreporting of injuries.

Although the division has increased its presence on the Skyway project under the partnership, it did not adequately follow up on three of the six complaints received from current and former KFM employees as of August 2005. For an April 2004 complaint regarding worker exposure to hazardous fumes, the division did not use its statutory authority to investigate the complaint and issue citations for the two alleged serious violations it found. It instead used the compliance assistance approach outlined by its informal partnership with KFM, which precludes issuing citations. In the case of an October 2004 complaint, the division did not investigate at all because of internal miscommunication. In the case of a January 2005 complaint regarding several potentially hazardous situations, the division's response was to query KFM by letter and rely on KFM's assertion the hazards did not exist, even though state law requires it to investigate complaints from employees in a specified period of time unless the complaint is without reasonable basis.

Caltrans has identified safety as the first goal in its strategic plan and considers all employees responsible for conducting business in the safest possible manner. In addition, although Caltrans indicates it is not legally responsible for the safety of its contractors' employees, it does take steps to ensure that each contractor follows applicable health and safety regulations. However, the location of the Skyway project safety coordinator within Caltrans' organizational structure limits the position's independence from Caltrans' construction managers. We also found that attendance averaged only 76 percent for necessary safety training and 66 percent for required safety sessions held every 10 days for a sample of Caltrans' employees working on the Skyway project and all seven of its construction managers.

RECOMMENDATIONS

To identify the underreporting of workplace injuries and to help ensure the reasonable accuracy of annual injury reports, the division should develop a mechanism to obtain employers' annual injury reports and design procedures to detect the underreporting of workplace injuries. If the division believes it does not have the resources necessary to undertake this task in light of its other priorities, it should seek additional funding from the Legislature for this effort.

If the division believes it will use the partnership model in the future, it should create a plan for how it will operate under the model so its activities will provide appropriate oversight and be aligned with state law. Specifically, it should ensure that roles and responsibilities are communicated clearly and that critical information is shared with all relevant individuals.

To ensure that the project safety coordinator assigned to the Skyway project has the necessary independence and authority to evaluate and report on project safety, Caltrans should have this position be independent of the managers whose safety performance the coordinator must oversee.

Caltrans should ensure that its construction managers and staff on the Skyway project attend the required safety sessions every 10 days and other necessary safety training.

AGENCY COMMENTS

The Labor and Workforce Development Agency (agency), which oversees the division, acknowledges that the division made errors in responding to two complaints but believes that the response to an April 2004 complaint was appropriate. The agency indicates that it would study the options for creating a system to detect the underreporting of injuries and inform the Legislature of the results. The Business, Transportation and Housing Agency and Caltrans generally agree with our conclusions and note that steps are being taken to implement our recommendations.


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