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(EDITOR’S NOTE: A classic example of tenacious, “shoe-leather” reporting, this scoop was made possible only by months of persistent and diplomatic contact with extremely tight-lipped OSHA officials on a weekly – and often daily – basis. Two stories follow: main news story, immediately below, and sidebar, 'Injured Worker Confident About Job Site' – both written in one sitting the night this package was posted on madison.com.)
Contractor Cited In Building Collapse
By Chuck Nowlen
Kraemer Brothers Inc. construction company has been cited with four serious federal safety violations in the collapse of the UW-Madison Rennebohm Pharmacy Building last June.
While absolving the contractor of “any willful or criminal violations,” the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommended $19,000 in fines against Kraemer Brothers, the Plain-based general contractor on the $46.9 million Pharmacy Building project. OSHA issued the citations last week but did not make them public until Monday afternoon, when they were faxed in advance of official release to The Capital Times.
Eleven Kraemer Brothers employees were injured when a section of form work supporting the building’s newly poured fourth floor collapsed shortly after 8 a.m. June 9.
The accident led to a dramatic on-site rescue in which one worker, 41-year-old Terry Staskal, of Hazel Green, was trapped under wet concrete and debris for more than three hours while emergency doctors and others worked to save him -- at one point fearing that Staskal’s legs might have to be amputated. Staskal was released from University Hospital on July 2, with doctors predicting a full recovery after extended physical therapy.
Only one of the four citations issued against Kraemer Brothers – alleging that components of a fourth-floor concrete shoring system were not capable of supporting the maximum intended load -- appears “directly related” to the cause of the collapse, Madison OSHA area director Kimberly Stille said.
That violation, which carries a recommended $7,000 fine, refers to a15-foot beam that was installed to support part of the project’s “Flying Form” shoring system. That system was suspected in the collapse early on in the investigation.
The components of the shoring system “were not sound, rigid and capable of carrying the load” it had to bear, the OSHA citation says.
The company also was cited for allegedly:
*Deviating from the project’s original shoring plan and specifications without a qualified designer’s approval before concrete was poured. Recommended fine: $5,000.
*Failing to prevent workers from entering areas under which concrete was being poured -- by “erecting signs and barricades” and “providing points of access” where employees do not need to walk under hazardous areas. Recommended fine: $5,000.
*Allowing an unprotected edge on a fourth-floor walking/working surface, which exposed some employees to a nine- to 10-foot fall to the structure’s third floor. Recommended fine: $2,000.
Kraemer Brothers has 15 working days to appeal the citations to the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, Stille said.
She added that Kraemer Brothers “cooperated fully throughout the investigation,” and that, since 1995, the company’s projects have been inspected nine times by OSHA -- and found to be in compliance with safety regulations in eight of those cases.
Stille said that “OSHA did not find any willful or criminal violations” in the Pharmacy Building collapse.
Nevertheless, the agency defines a serious violation “as one in which there is a substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result, and that the employer knew or should have known of the hazard,” Stille said.
The citations came after an exhaustive investigation by local and regional OSHA engineers and other experts from June 9 to Nov. 24.
Kraemer Brothers president Tom Kraemer told The Capital Times Monday night that the firm was still “considering its options” on the citations, including an appeal on at least one of the four.
“I can tell you that we don’t agree with a lot of the findings,” Kraemer said, adding, however, that “by virtue of the fact that one of our employees was trapped means almost by definition that something wrong happened.”
As for the most serious citation, Kraemer said, “The only difficulty with that is that no one knows where (the shoring system) was in the sequence of the collapse. By that I mean that there were several components that collapsed, and no one has been able to determine whether (the shoring system) was the first or fourth or fifth. The maximum load is naturally going to be toward the end, so the key is determining exactly what the initial catalyst was.”
Saying that several improvements have since been incorporated into the shoring system -- including doubling the number of cross-braces and increasing the number of weight-bearing vertical columns (or “legs”) -- Kraemer added that the company now has “complete confidence” in its workers’ safety at the site.
All but two of the 11 injured employees have returned to work at the 45- to 55-worker site, Kraemer said.
“We have every confidence in that system, and so do all the company’s employees,” Kraemer said. “Our one wish in all of this all along has always been to bring it to whatever proper and correct conclusion the incident called for.”
Perminder Ahluwalai, UW-Madison’s engineering point man on the Pharmacy Building project, declined to comment on the most serious OSHA charge, saying he would first have to check Kraemer Brothers’ calculations on the load-bearing capacity of the fourth-floor shoring system.
However, Ahluwalai said he was surprised at the remaining three citations, which he said involved “normal safety practices that any contractor would employ.”
“These are more common-sense things, so I am very surprised that they supposedly were not being enforced,” said Ahluwalai, assistant director of major projects in the UW-Madison Division of Facilities Planning and Management.
Kraemer Brothers was the only firm associated with the project to be cited by OSHA in the collapse, and that fact also surprised other officials close to the project.
One of those sources, for example, said he expected the builder of the concrete shoring system, Symons Co., of Des Plains, Ill, to take at least some of the blame.
That’s in part because many of the changes implemented since the collapse were undertaken and supervised by Symons officials, said the source, who spoke on that aspect of the matter only on condition of anonymity.
Another source also noted, for example, that before the collapse, construction workers complained that the “legs” of the shoring system were becoming difficult to adjust while bearing only about one-half of the specified maximum load.
Told of those observations, Kraemer declined to place any blame for the accident on Symons. He did note, however, that the company could not legally have been cited by OSHA, because none of its employees were working directly on the project.
Other sources confirmed that Symons could conceivably be the subject of civil legal actions in the collapse, but it was not known today whether any such actions had been started.
Contacted early this morning, Patrick Munzer, general counsel for Symons, declined detailed comment on either the OSHA citations or the sources’ surprise that Symons escaped blame in the accident.
“Since I haven’t even seen the OSHA citations, I can’t really say anything at all about them at this point,” Munzer said. “But I will say that we cooperated with OSHA in every way we could and feel like we’ve done everything we can in this matter.
“We obviously feel we didn’t do anything wrong up there, of course. And I’ll also note that nobody from OSHA is indicating that we did.”
Meanwhile, Kenneth Connors, head of the UW-Madison School of Pharmacy’s internal planning committee on the project, said the school had “every confidence in Kraemer Brothers as our general contractor.”
“Obviously, we’re sorry that the accident happened, but we’re still happy to be working with them on this project,” Connors said. “We also look forward to completing it with them.”
Ahluwalai and Connors said that Kraemer Brothers had promised to finish the building by the contracted completion date of Nov. 16, 2000.
Construction was “not greatly delayed” by the collapse because work was able to continue in other parts of the building, Connors said. He estimated the setback at “a couple of months or so.”
The concrete foundations for six floors of a planned seven-floor tower -- the area in which the collapse occurred -- also have been completed, Connors and Ahluwalai said.
That was because OSHA and other officials gave Kraemer Brothers permission to resume construction there “some time ago,” Connors said.
But Ahluwalai insisted it was “too early to tell” if the Nov. 16 target date was reasonable.
“There is still an awful lot to do,” he said. “On the tower alone, the seventh floor has to be poured, and the seventh-floor roof has to be poured -- and that’s really only a small part of what has to be done over the next year or so.
“Then the building has to be enclosed. That’s where much of the most time-consuming work has to be finished. They have yet to even start on the two-story laboratory portion, for example -- although they do have a crane set up to do that. All I can say at this point is that they are standing by their timetable.”
They lived through the building collapse, and one of them says the crew at the UW Pharmacy Building construction site is not worrying today.
“Do we have confidence out there? Most definitely,” said 39-year-old Steven Weber, of Verona, who suffered neck and back injuries in the collapse.
“I mean, so much has been changed now. Plus, I’m a guy who believes that if you fall off a horse, you gotta get right back up there -- and that’s what we’ve all done with no problems at all.”
Terry Staskal, the most seriously injured worker, who was released from University Hospital on July 2 after numerous surgeries to repair damaged bone and tissue, would not speak in detail about the citations during a brief telephone interview on Monday.
“I don’t want to comment on any part of it without talking to my lawyer first,” said Staskal, 41, who confirmed that he has not worked since the accident.
“I didn’t know about any of this until you called me, so I just can’t say anything at all.”
The other injured Kraemer Brothers employee who has not yet returned to work, 30-year-old Todd Dobbs, of Richland Center, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Dobbs was released from University Hospital shortly before Staskal, after suffering a broken leg.
Eight other construction workers also suffered injuries in the collapse, most of them minor.
-- Chuck Nowlen
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