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Friday, February 16, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Crane Collapse: Safety Gap Disclosed -- Subcontractor's Poor Record Ignored

Los Angeles Times

SAN FRANCISCO - The president of the construction company in charge of a building project where a 240-ton crane fell and killed five people last November said yesterday that he was unaware of the extremely poor safety record of the subcontractor hired to operate the crane.

The problem is ``we don't deal with safety'' records when it comes to hiring subcontractors, said David Grubb, president of Swinerton and Walberg, a large company with a good reputation for safety.

Grubb, testifying before a House subcommittee studying the lack of federal regulation of cranes and those who operate them, said his company now was paying more attention to subcontractor histories.

The Erection Co., a Seattle-based company hired by Swinerton and Walberg to put up high-rise steel at a building in downtown San Francisco, was cited for 59 violations between 1985 and 1988 by Washington state work-safety officials, according to testimony by Gerard Scannell, chief of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The state officials had proposed penalties of $110,000.

Grubb said that before the accident his company regularly checked out a subcontractor's bondability and industry reputation, but ``our diligence . . . would not have taken into account safety.''

He acknowledged that the speed of the construction bidding process is among the factors that discourage general contractors from making such checks.

Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., chairman of the House subcommittee on employment and housing, said that Grubb's testimony illustrates why the construction industry should fund a national data bank to immediately make available safety records of subcontractors.

Lantos also urged Scannell to create OSHA regulations on huge ``tower cranes'' such as the one that collapsed, and said that he planned to introduce legislation next week to substantially increase criminal penalties for employer negligence that leads to on-the-job death or serious injury.

Grubb, breaking with the general anti-regulatory posture of the construction industry, said he supported federal licensing of crane operators and suggested all operators be required to attend approved technical schools.

Unlike Swinerton and Walberg, both the Erection Co. and a crane-delivery company it hired, American Pecco Co., declined invitations to testify yesterday. Lantos said the subcommittee would issue subpoenas to require representatives to appear at a future hearing.

The cause of the Nov. 28 crane accident, which killed four workmen and a bus driver on the street below and injured 21 others when the crane spun off balance and fell 19 stories, is not known.

Lantos was outraged at Scannell's testimony that OSHA has inspection requirements for several kinds of cranes, but not for the massive tower cranes.

Scannell noted in his testimony that OSHA was creating a separate office of construction to improve its regulation of the construction industry, which is responsible for more workplace deaths than any other segment of the economy. It won him no thanks from Lantos.

Among other criticisms the subcommittee chairman had of OSHA was the tiny number of cases referred to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution - only 55 in the history of the workplace agency.

The main problem, according to Lantos and other critics of OSHA, is that the law that created the agency permits criminal penalties only in cases where employer negligence has led to death.

Lantos said that his bill, which would raise the maximum prison sentence to 20 years from the current six months, would permit criminal prosecution in any case where unsafe conditions lead to ``major bodily harm.''

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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