Workers’ deaths expose numerous unsafe work conditions, false statements, distortion, misdirection by contractor

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A ST. LOUIS CRIME SCENE technician talks with two workers near an external elevator at the jobsite at 1501 Washington Ave. in St. Louis where two workers were killed when the basket they were working in fell six stories down an elevator shaft. – Chris Lee/St. Louis Post-Dispatch photo

Laborers 42 had been working to organize the jobsite

By TIM ROWDEN

Editor

Joey Hale and Ben Ricks had only been at work for three hours when they fell to their deaths June 4 in an elevator shaft at the former International Shoe Co. building at 1501 Washington Ave. near the City Museum.

Hale, 44, and Ricks, 58, both of St. Louis, were working in a “spider basket” suspended by a cable operated by a hoist six stories up inside the elevator shaft when it fell. Authorities said a safety cable snapped, but that only tells part of the story.

If the job was being performed properly, both men should also have been harnessed to secondary safety lines, secured outside of the basket, to prevent them from falling if the equipment failed.

Exactly what happened isn’t clear. The City of St. Louis and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are investigating.

What is clear is that:

• Health and safety concerns regarding asbestos removal and fall hazards had been raised at the project months before last week’s fatal accident.

• The union workers who reported those concerns were let go and replaced with non-union workers.

• GenCorp, the prime contractor for demolition and asbestos abatement on the project, issued a false statement following the accident claiming: 1) That the men killed were active union members; and 2) That GenCorp’s subcontractor World Wrecking had an active signatory contract with Laborers 42 for work on the project, but the company was in violation of the agreement because they were using non-union workers.

LABOR TRIBUNE INVESTIGATING

The Labor Tribune is investigating these and other allegations, including:

• Improper asbestos removal and containment resulting in exposure to deadly asbestos fibers to workers throughout the jobsite as well as neighborhood residents and patrons to the nearby City Museum.

• Fall hazards on the jobsite.

• The use of illegal aliens and young out-of-state workers for dangerous jobs.

• Failure to keep an accurate log of Latino workers on the jobsite, putting them at increased risk of injury or death in the event of a fire (which occurred on the site) or other emergency.

• Inadequate safety training.

• Active promotion of “right-to-work.”

LIVES LOST: Two women console each other after speaking with police outside the project at 1501 Washington Ave. in St. Louis where two men were killed while working in an elevator shaft. Their deaths exposed numerous health and safety violations at the jobsite. – Chris Lee/St. Louis Post-Dispatch photo

THE FATAL JOB

The former International Shoe Building at 1501 Washington 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 hired directly by Fe Equus.

PARIC Corporation is the general contractor on the project and was the prime contractor providing framing and other construction services on the top floors of the project on June 4, the day of the accident.

GenCorp is the prime contractor for selective demolition and asbestos abatement services.

PARIC and GenCorp have separate contracts with the owner, separate work schedules and insurance, separate entrances to the building and separate site control for their portion of the project.

GenCorp issued a statement claiming that World Wrecking had a signatory contract with Laborers Local 42 on the project and that Hale and Ricks were both union members. Both had formerly been union members but were not active union members at the time of the accident. World Wrecking had violated its contract with Local 42 by hiring the non-union workers.

World Wrecking had 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 containment and fall hazards conditions at the jobsite. That complaint is still open.

At the time they were let go, the Local 42 members were told the cutting torch work they were performing was ahead of schedule and the rest of the job was running behind so there was no work for them to perform.

World Wrecking then replaced them with Ricks and Hale, the two men who were killed.

‘WALKED AWAY’

The Eastern Missouri Laborers District Council and Laborers 42 have been dealing with GenCorp for at least a year and have a long history with Keith Hanford, the owner of World Wrecking.

Local 42 has been working to organize employees of GenCorp.

Hanford, the owner of World Wrecking, was sued by the Greater St. Louis Construction Laborers Welfare Fund in 2002 for benefit payments of $95,114.11. A consent judgment was entered in 2003 against his company, Empire General Contracting. Empire subsequently ceased operations.

TAX ABATEMENTS

In addition to the International Shoe building project, GenCorp has also been selected to provide remediation services at the former Municipal Courts building at 1320 Market Street, which developers plan to turn into another hotel.

The Washington Ave. project has received approval for local property tax abatement, New Market Tax Credits and state and federal historic tax credits. The Municipal Courts building received approval for $8 million in tax increment financing, which will let developers use future taxes to finance a portion of their project.

FLINN

HANDBILLING

“When we heard that they got the 1501 Washington Ave. project, we were right on it,” said Brandon Flinn, business manager/secretary-treasurer for Local 42. “We were out there from Day One handbilling the workers telling them this job is a Prevailing Wage project and if you’re not being paid this, contact the Division of Labor Standards.

“We were originally told that the project was going to be a Prevailing Wage project,” Flinn said. “But after we started handbilling, we were told by GenCorp and the developer that the project was no longer a Prevailing Wage project.

“After that, we started handbilling the workers, telling them ‘You have a right to join a union.’ We didn’t get a lot of traction because a lot of these workers were very young workers from Iowa and Indiana and some had connections to GenCorp. The Latino workers didn’t sign, we believe, because of their legal status.”

EVENTS LEADING TO THE TRAGIC ACCIDENT

World Wrecking signed a Labor Agreement with Local 42 in January to cut out five elevators on the jobsite.

Flinn said Hanford originally wanted to stage a man-lift on a scaffold and drop the debris down the elevator shaft but was told he would need a spider basket to do the job safely.

“GenCorp didn’t have the expertise to do that work,” Flinn said of the project. “But to be honest, neither did World Wrecking.

“Hanford is not licensed in the city as a demolition contractor,” Flinn said. “He has a business license, but not a demo license.”

The basket was installed for the original work by Safway Group but Flinn said it appeared the basket had been moved after Local 42’s laborers were removed from the jobsite. And, he said, it didn’t appear that secondary safety lines had been installed.

ANDREWS

IMPROPER INSPECTION

Local 42 Recording Secretary Matt Andrews said: “Our agreement with World Wrecking was that Local 42 would vet workers and make sure they were qualified. Our guys that were in there originally had brought up some safety concerns with asbestos and fall hazards. Shortly thereafter, they were let go.”

On Feb. 5, Local 42 notified OSHA that non-licensed, non-certified workers were being used to remove asbestos without proper suits or respiratory equipment.

The asbestos was free-flowing in the air and was being thrown out with the rest of the demolition debris, including in an uncovered dumpster 200 feet from the entrance to the City Museum.

The laborers in the elevator shafts away from where the asbestos removal was being performed found asbestos fibers on their boots and clothes. One sample tested contained 15-20 percent amosite, one of the deadlier forms of asbestos.

OSHA conducted an inspection, Flinn said, but notified GenCorp before doing so. The company began misting the jobsite, to keep the asbestos from floating free, and put a tarp over the dumpster before OSHA arrived.

In addition to notifying GenCorp before the inspection, OSHA also told GenCorp that Matt Andrews had filed the complaint and provided them with the specifics of the allegations, Flinn said.

UNDOCUMENTED LATINO WORKERS

Carlos Escobar, of the Laborers’ Midwest Region Organizing Committee, noted the presence of Latino workers on the jobsite who were brought in a van marked Active Thermal Concepts.

ESCOBAR

The workers were from Iowa and Indiana.

GenCorp is a non-union company. It is a doing business as a DBA name for Active Holdings Group. Michael Renfroe is listed as GenCorp’s founder and as vice president of Active Holdings Group.

Escobar documented 10-12 Latino workers arriving at the job site after other workers were inside and obtained a copy of the sign-in sheet, which only showed two Latino names on the register.

Workers are required to sign-in in case there is a fire, Escobar said, so fire fighters will have a way of knowing whether anyone is still inside.

On March 14, there was a fire in the building that started in one of the elevator shafts. The fire was contained, he said, but the fire department had no way of knowing that those workers were on the upper floors.

“No one knew they were in the building to be evacuated.”

The workers were brought in secretly after everyone else was in the building, Escobar said, and kept there until everyone else had left so there would be no record of them having been there.

Escobar said he approached some of the workers to ask if they were interested in signing union representation cards.

“They asked if they needed to be legal,” he said. “They said, ‘We can’t do it because we’re not legal.’”

Escobar said he also spoke with a former GenCorp worker who ran the company’s training program, a 40-hour asbestos course in Indiana, where illegal workers were given false names and Social Security numbers.

Escobar said the state of Indiana revoked GenCorp’s license to teach asbestos courses in the state after it was learned that workers who didn’t speak English were being recorded as having passed the course.

NON-UNION, PRO-‘RTW’ CONTRACTOR

On May 29, GenCorp distributed a misleading bulk email titled “The Right to Work Advantage,” with the subhead “Dispelling the Myths,” which stated in part: “The competitive nature of the construction industry lends to some misleading information in regards to non-union contractors. These myths are often perpetuated by those who are in direct competition for construction or environmental projects. The truth is, non-union companies are just as efficient and effective as their counterparts. All construction projects require the same criteria of performance, safety and communication. The biggest differences between union and non-union contractors are project pricing and flexibility….”

Beyond the headline, the email never mentions “right-to-work” directly, but goes on to praise GenCorp’s safety standards and training as providing a cheaper, but an equally safe option, to union contractors.

The email continues: “Team members understand for us to be the contractor of choice, our performance must be seen as the safest option.”

It wasn’t.

3 COMMENTS

  1. It’s a shame that people had to die for it to open up everyone eyes and SHAME on OSHA for letting them know that they were coming.

  2. Our prayers for their family’s. Working in elevator shafts is a VERY dangerous occupation and should only be preformed by the highest skilled workers . That is why in 2015 Missouri enacted a state wide licensing law that require anyone working in an elevator shaft installing or wrecking elevator equipment be licensed.

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