Contractor cited for Whittier tunnel accident

Posted: Sunday, March 19, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Seattle-based construction company in charge of the $80 million Whittier tunnel renovation has been cited for safety violations following an accident that paralyzed a worker.

Kiewit Construction Co. was cited by state occupational safety investigators. The citations carry penalties totaling $23,200.

The company is also being sued by a former foreman who claims he was fired seven weeks earlier for warning of the risk of an accident such as the one that paralyzed laborer Jerry Falcone.

The accident occurred about Nov. 3 while union laborers were shoveling out rock and debris after a blast to widen the tunnel.

The crew was working in a part of the tunnel considered very dangerous due to the instability of the rock, according to the state Occupational Safety and Health Division.

A boulder fell from the ceiling and crushed Falcone's spine.

Another laborer who witnessed the accident tried to comfort Falcone until help arrived.

''We agreed that sometimes you need to pray to God and ask for help, and this was one of those times,'' said Stephen Cochran, a Wasilla resident who continues to work in the tunnel.

Kiewit spokesman Dave Zemek said the company denies any wrongdoing and will defend itself, adding that Kiewit has one of the best safety records for a construction company of its size.

Regarding Falcone, Zemek said ''he put himself in a situation where he got hurt.''

OSHD has cited Kiewit for five safety violations the agency classified as ''serious.''

According to OSHD, the company:

--Allowed a laborer to enter a blast area prior to having the rock properly taken down or supported;

--Failed to provide safe access to a work site;

--Allowed uncertified workers to handle explosives;

--Failed to provide rescue teams and first-aid gear;

--Didn't have a functioning communication system in the tunnel.

The construction company is contesting the citations and penalties, according to a letter from James Lastowka, an attorney for Kiewit.

Falcone's accident was not an isolated incident but part of a dangerous working environment created by Kiewit management, said Jon Derendinger, a union foreman fired Sept. 14.

Derendinger filed an OSHA complaint in August, alleging he was fired because he repeatedly told Kiewit management that tunnel conditions were unsafe and that explosives were handled illegally.

Kiewit said Derendinger's claims are false and that he was let go because he made mistakes with the explosives inventory, wired shots incorrectly and left in the middle of a safety meeting.

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