April 12, 2024

Key Bridge collapse raises safety concerns for future construction

In the moments before the freighter Dali rammed the Francis Scott Key Bridge, sending it plunging into the water, a stream of urgent warnings sounded over radios and allowed police to block traffic from getting onto the span, likely lives were saved.

But those warnings apparently did not reach the six construction workers killed in last week’s bridge collapse in Baltimore. Their deaths have raised questions about whether the construction company took proper precautions, including keeping a safety boat nearby that could have potentially warned them at least a few seconds before impact.

Federal regulations require construction companies to keep such boats, commonly known as skiffs, on hand when crews are working over waterways, safety experts told The Associated Press. There is no indication that the construction company, Brawner Builders, had a lifeboat on the water or ready to be launched when the bridge fell.

“When you’re working over a bridge like that, the standard interpretation doesn’t give you a choice,” said Janine McCartney, safety engineer at HHC Safety Engineering Services Inc. “The skiff is required, period.”

Coast Guard representatives and other officials said they were not aware of a Brawner boat in the water at the time of the March 26 collapse. And satellite images from around the time of the collapse did not appear to show a boat in the river near the bridge.

Even if the workers had been warned that the giant ship was about to hit, it is unclear whether they would have had enough time to reach safety.

The archived recordings of the bridge maintenance radio channel from that morning contain only one minor conversation between two maintenance workers about the approaching ship, although it is unclear whether either was on or near the span at the time. During the conversation, one man appeared to ask in a hushed voice what was going on, and the other replied, “They’re just holding up traffic because a ship lost steering, that’s all.” Less than 30 seconds later the bridge collapsed.

But if a safety boat had been present, experts said, it might have used a VHF radio and used walkie-talkies to alert construction workers to the Dali’s distress calls, potentially giving them a chance to take action. Authorities say a construction inspector was able to run to a section of the bridge that did not collapse, although it is not known what warning, if any, he received.

A representative for Brawner declined to comment for this story, saying the company is focused on caring for the families of the workers who were patching holes in the bridge when it collapsed. Brawner has used safety skiffs for bridge work in the past, according to a statement from a company executive that was part of a 2011 lawsuit.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations require construction companies performing work over waterways to have at least one safety boat available. OSHA officials have said this as a rule interpretations over the years that the necessary boat “can provide rapid rescue of workers who fall into the water, regardless of other precautions taken to prevent this.”

An OSHA spokesperson did not respond to repeated requests for clarification on that regulation.

Some states have rules clarifying that the boats are not necessary under certain circumstances, such as when the work being done is within the guardrails of a bridge. But Maryland is not one of them and does require a safety skiff to be present when workers are above or near water. A spokesperson for Maryland Occupational Safety and Health, which oversees compliance with federal labor regulations, declined to comment on the Key Bridge collapse or Brawner’s safety status, citing the open investigation into the tragedy.

Dennis O’Bryan, a maritime attorney, said he believes the skiff requirement would remain in effect even if there is little risk of drowning unless the company receives an exemption from the state.

“If a boat had been there, it would have heard the distress call and radioed for workers to get off the bridge,” O’Bryan said. “It must be investigated whether the skiff was there and, if not, why it was not.”

O’Bryan does not represent any of the families of the workers who were on the Key Bridge when it collapsed. But in 2011, he represented a Brawner worker who was injured while operating a safety boat intended to monitor workers on a bridge. The lawsuit accused the company of failing to properly crew the boat. An undisclosed amount was paid.

The AP requested a copy of the safety plan Brawner submitted for the Key Bridge project, which was part of more than 25 contracts totaling more than $120 million that the state had awarded the company over the past five years . The request was still being processed on Tuesday.

Brawner has been cited three times since 2018 for seven safety violations, including four charges of failing to provide proper fall protection, according to OSHA’s online enforcement records. The company was fined nearly $11,000 in informal OSHA settlements.

Several project leaders interviewed by the AP said that despite OSHA’s strict interpretations, it is not unusual for construction companies to refrain from using a safety skiff on jobs that do not pose an immediate risk of drowning, and that it is unclear when the regulations is maintained. . In the past decade, only one violation has been issued in Maryland during a bridge construction project for failing to provide a life-saving skiff, according to a review of available online OSHA data.

Some construction experts said a boat would not have made a difference because of the steep slope, the short time the crew had to respond and the tons of steel and debris that made it incredibly difficult for even trained rescuers to locate and reach the missing person. bodies of workers.

“You can have the most perfect safety plan and the most perfect safety measures, and unless you have time to implement them, who knows,” said Julio Palomo, president of Laborers International Union of North America Local 11, which covers Maryland and other parts represents. of the Washington, DC area. “Would it have just put more people in danger if that boat was in the water? We just don’t know.”

Others, however, said a safety boat might have had a better chance of providing a warning to the crew via a direct radio line, something companies might want to consider when writing future safety plans in light of the Key Bridge collapse.

Ryan Papariello, a safety and health specialist with the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America, said that in safety plans for work on bridges, companies should consider including flotation devices and clear communication with the Coast Guard or someone patrolling the water. . He also said future plans could include the use of specific loud noises that alert workers to evacuate.

“It is clear that this was not a foreseeable incident,” Papariello said. “Many of the contractors we see – and I don’t blame the contractor – just don’t have a valid rescue plan.”

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Associated Press reporters Rebecca Boone and Mike Catalini contributed.

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