Laborers Local 42 members knew there were problems on the Washington Ave. jobsite where two workers fell to their deaths
By TIM ROWDEN
Laborers Local 42 members who were originally performing the work to cut out elevator shafts in the former International Shoe Co. building at 1501 Washington Ave. near the City Museum, where two workers fell to their deaths on June 4, knew from the moment they arrived on the job that things weren’t being done safely.
And when they complained about the unsafe conditons, they were let go. Weeks later, two men were dead.
Joey Hale, 44, and Ben Ricks, 58, both of St. Louis, were working in a spider basket suspended by a cable operated by a hoist inside an elevator shaft on the sixth floor of the building when the cable holding the basket snapped.
Why the cable snapped and why the two men were apparently not properly secured to secondary safety cables is under investigation by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the City of St. Louis.
The Labor Tribune is also investigating. In the first part of this series, our reporting revealed that:
• Health and safety concerns regarding asbestos removal and fall hazards had been raised at the project months before the fatal accident.
• The union workers who reported those concerns were let go and replaced with non-union workers.
The Local 42 members who originally worked on the project, Larry Fox, Joe Schindler and Travis Machelett recently sat down with the Labor Tribune to discuss what they saw and how the company and health and safety inspectors responded.
Fox, Schindler and Machelett are experienced in demolition work. Fox has been in the field for 25 years. Schindler and Machelett each have 13 years’ experience. Schindler is also licensed in asbestos removal.
The three were working for World Wrecking, but GenCorp was in charge of safety on the jobsite.
Since the accident, five former GenCorp employees have joined Local 42 and been placed with union contractors.
The former International Shoe Building is being converted into the Last Hotel by Milwaukee Developer Fe Equus. The workers who died were employed by World Wrecking, a subcontractor to GenCorp Services, a site preparation and abatement contractor.
World Wrecking signed a one-time agreement on this job with Laborers Local 42 in January to perform cutting torch work, but the Local 42 members working on the project were let go in March shortly after they filed a safety and health complaint with OSHA regarding improper asbestos removal and containment and fall hazards at the jobsite.
World Wrecking replaced them sometime after that with Ricks and Hale, the two men who were killed.
QUESTIONABLE OSHA INSPECTION
Local 42 received a letter from OSHA the week after Ricks and Hale were killed stating that GenCorp was only cited for some workers having facial hair which might prevent their respirator masks from fitting properly.
However, the inspection results are highly suspect.
OSHA notified GenCorp 24 hours before an inspection was conducted.
In addition, OSHA also told GenCorp that Local 42 Field Representative and Organizer Matt Andrews had filed the complaint and provided the company with the details of the allegations.
Schindler, Fox and Machelett said GenCorp scrambled to clean up the site before an inspector arrived.
WHAT LED TO THE COMPLAINT
Local 42 notified OSHA on Feb. 5 that non-licensed, non-certified workers were being used to remove asbestos without proper suits or respiratory equipment.
The union filed the complaint based on Schindler, Fox and Machelett’s observations on the jobsite, including:
• Asbestos free-flowing in the air inside the elevator shaft where they were working;
• Workers moving in and out of improperly contained abatement areas – some with hazmat suits and some without – with debris on their clothing;
• No misters to contain contaminated dust until GenCorp was notified of the pending OSHA inspection;
• Asbestos being thrown out with the rest of the demolition debris, including in an uncovered dumpster 200 feet from the entrance to the City Museum.
• A positive test of asbestos fibers, paid for by Local 42, of material recovered from one of the Local 42 member’s shoes. The sample tested contained 15-20 percent amosite, one of the deadlier forms of asbestos.
That OSHA would notify GenCorp of the pending inspection, Andrews said, “It’s like serving a search warrant, saying ‘I’m going to be at your house at 4:30 Thursday morning to kick in your door with a warrant. You might want to flush everything.’”
Schindler said there were problems on the job from Day 1.
“We’ve all done demolition for a long time, and we’ve all learned from experienced demo guys, so to get on a project and not see anything that even looks familiar to anything that we would do, it was weird,” he said.
“We were contracted to cut out the elevator shafts the same way we’ve always done it,” Schindler said. “But when we first got onto the job, they already kind of had in place what they had in mind on how to do the project. I walked in and I was like ‘I don’t think so. This is not how we do it. I’m getting in that basket.’”
The proper way to cut out a shaft, the three said, is to have two people in the basket – one torch cutting the steel tracks and the other pulling on it with an anchored line and maneuvering it to the door where a third worker, a “fire watch,” helps maneuver it to the floor and hoses it down.
“That stuff is heavy when you’re taking out seven- to eight-foot sections,” Fox said. “The process is, one person cuts the steel, which is tied on and anchored to the wall, and the other guy ropes it out to the fire watch.”
Schindler said World Wrecking wanted to have one man in the basket torch cutting the steel and dropping the heavy, heated pieces 10 floors down the shaft where another worker would pull it free.
“Steel bounces,” Schindler said. “You could drop it and it could ricochet and blow right through the door.”
Originally, before Fox was brought in, it was only Schindler and Machelett on the job, with a third person, not a member of Local 42, assigned as “fire watch.”
Schindler and Machelett said they needed the same person to be on fire watch throughout the job for safety reasons and so they wouldn’t have to keep training new people how to do the dangerous job.
Instead, “In our first three days, we had four different guys,” Schindler said. “When you’re having to retrain somebody over and over and over. It makes the process more difficult than it needs to be, and there’s really no reason for it.”
The job supervisor’s response when the experienced workers complained was telling.
“His comment was, ‘Well, he just works a garden hose. How hard is it?’” Machelett said. “He’s not just working a garden hose, he’s grabbing steel. If something were to fall on our end in the basket, who’s going to help us? This man doesn’t even know what his task is, and we’re having to train a new one every two hours.”
Schindler, Fox and Machelett continued to do the job the way they had been trained, but that created friction with World Wrecking and GenCorp.
“They didn’t like all of us having to go up top and make sure everything was secure in the morning,” Fox said. They wanted to know where we were all the time.
“They didn’t want Joe or anybody looking at the other floors where they were removing asbestos. They tried keeping us out of the basement and the floors that were in between.”
Schindler said he noticed a problem on the first day.
“We were checking out our water situation when we first got there and five guys walked fully clothed right out of the containment area on the fourth or fifth floor, no suits on, just fully clothed with a respirator on.”
Dust and particulate matter from the work taking place on the lower floors was floating up the elevator shaft.
Later testing paid for by Local 42, proved the airborne material contained asbestos.
Brandon Flinn, business manager/secretary-treasurer for Local 42, said his members were exposed because of improper containment throughout the jobsite.
“They’re breathing whatever was coming up from the basement. That shouldn’t happen if the containment was properly installed, which it wasn’t. What they weren’t aware of is that Joe is licensed in asbestos removal. He knows everything about it.”
And apparently, GenCorp didn’t.
“I went down to the basement one time and there were five or six GenCorp guys in the basement cutting pipe with a sawzall,” Schindler said. “This one kid was cutting right through a wrap (an asbestos wrap) straight through a pipe and right through the wrap. Not one of them even had a clue that they were cutting asbestos.”