by Elizabeth Grossman
One might assume that when a government agency awards a private company a contract to do construction work – for bridge or sewer work or other public utility repairs, for example – evaluating the company’s safety and health record would be a prerequisite. This is, however, not the case. As the government watchdog organization Public Citizen details in a new report, numerous government contracts have been awarded to companies with chronic poor health and safety records. In a number of cases, such contracts have gone to companies with long histories of serious workplace injuries and fatalities. This is not ancient history. A company hired earlier this year as a subcontractor for an $870,000 NASA contract pleaded guilty last year to criminal charges over safety violations that occurred during work on a federal government contract and resulted in five worker deaths.
While some states have some screening measures in place to address this issue, “there is nothing at the federal level,” explained Lisa Gilbert, deputy director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. The General Services Administration confirmed that a company’s safety record is not part of its current due diligence process. Given the dangers inherent in construction work and the fact that construction accounts for more US workplace injuries than any other industry, it’s not surprising that construction companies hired through government contracts would experience some injuries. But why the safety records of the companies profiled in the Public Citizen report did not disqualify them from government contracts is puzzling at best.
The company recently subcontracted on a NASA contract despite its disturbing safety record is known as RPI Coatings, Inc, and is a striking example of a company whose poor record ought to be a red flag to government contracting officials. Previously known as Robison-Prezioso, Inc., RPI, Inc is a California-based specialty painting company that, as described by Bloomberg Businessweek (the company does not have its own website), does industrial painting and coating work, including fire-proofing, for “oil and gas, power, infrastructure, and architectural markets, as well as for U.S. government agencies.” In 2007, RPI was working on the Xcel Energy Cabin Creek hydroelectric plant in Colorado. (Xcel Energy is a private company, but the power plant is a public utility overseen by the Colorado Public Utility Commission.) On October 2, 2007, flammable solvents fueled a flash fire that killed five workers and injured three workers recoating the interior of the dam’s enclosed mountainside water tunnel known as a penstock. The US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) investigation of the catastrophe found that RPI had failed to implement basic safety measures. In 2011, RPI pleaded guilty to criminal charges and agreed to pay workers and their families $1.5 million. But this was not the first time RPI had been cited or fined for serious safety violations while working on a government contract.
In 2000, California state health officials cited the company after RPI workers suffered severe lead poisoning while working on the Bay Bridge as part of five-year, California Department of Transportation bridge retrofit project. In 2001, while working on the Bay Bridge, an RPI employee was seriously injured when he fell 80 feet off a scaffold. Later that year, RPI scaffolding fell from the Bay Bridge onto the road below, killing a driver crossing the bridge. According to a Denver Post account, the motorist was crushed by a 2.5 ton steel and plywood panel that was being moved at night by RPI and that had been attached with temporary fasteners. In 2002, another RPI Bay Bridge scaffold collapsed, killing the son of the worker injured in the 2001 fall and injuring three of his co-workers. (RPI has also been fined in California and Hawaii for illegal disposal of hazardous waste generated while working on government contracts.)
According to the CSB Xcel Energy Cabin Creek fire investigation report, between 1972 and 2007, RPI had been fined 90 times by OSHA for safety violations. The CSB noted that Xcel’s process for selecting contractors did not “disqualify bidders based on unacceptable past safety performance.” Although RPI received a score of zero for its safety performance during Xcel’s selection process, the company was still allowed to bid for and won the contract, apparently based on its low price. The CSB reported that RPI was not cooperative during its investigation and, along with Xcel, tried to block publication of the CSB’s findings and recommendations. Despite this record, in January 2012, RPI was awarded an $870,000 contract as a subcontractor on a NASA project at the Kennedy Space Center for work involving catwalks and scaffolds.
RPI Coating Inc., may sound like a small relatively unknown company, but since 1981 it’s been a subsidiary of Prezioso-Technilor, a French company that lists among its clients
ExxonMobil, Shell, Texaco, Chevron, Fluor, Halliburton, and Bechtel, all of whom are also US federal government contractors.
To prevent federal contracts from going to construction companies with poor safety records, Public Citizen recommends that before a company is allowed to bid on a government project, it must disclose past OSHA violations and detail its current health and safety practices. Companies that score low for health and safety based on their records would not be qualified to bid. Public Citizen suggests that a company’s OSHA record be used for such assessment instead of a company’s own reported injury rates to make sure the company has not somehow influenced or manipulated that record. Public Citizen also recommends that OSHA inspection, accident and fatality reports include the name of the government agency (if any) financing the project. “This way,” says Public Citizen, “government agencies, researchers, and the public can see if tax dollars are rewarding scofflaws.”
State-level oversight also inadequate
As Public Citizen’s report details, state and local governments have also awarded construction contracts to companies with poor safety records. The report cites examples of companies in Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio, and Washington state, all of which were hired for local infrastructure projects despite safety records that include repeat violations involving serious injuries and more than one fatality.
The Public Citizen report recounts how Triangle Paving and Grading, a North Carolina-based company, was hired in 2011by the city of Durham, NC to work on city sewers despite a safety record that included a 1997 fatality and more than 60 safety-violation citations from OSHA between 1997 and 2011. Among these was a citation for “placing workers in a hazardous trench” while doing work at Fort Bragg. Review of the company’s OSHA violations reveals a 2009 citation for a “willful violation” of OSHA’s “protective systems” requirements, for which the company was initially fined $50,000. In June 2011, while on the Durham city sewer job, two Triangle Paving and Grading workers died when they became trapped in a manhole. Despite this record, in September 2011, the North Carolina Department of Transportation awarded the company a contract to repave streets in Raleigh. And in March of this year, Triangle Paving and Grading was allowed to continue bidding on state projects on a probationary basis.
The cases from Maryland, Ohio, and Washington similarly all involve companies that continued to be awarded government contracts despite records of serious injuries – among them injuries from falling scaffolds, falls from scaffolds, and trench collapses – and OSHA violations.
In Public Citizen’s analysis, absent from most states’ process of evaluating companies that apply for public contracts is assessment of their safety records. Some local government agencies — Fairfax County, Virginia and the Los Angeles city school system, for example — have extensive screening processes in place, said National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH) executive director Tom O’Connor. But current state screening systems don’t appear to be completely effective at excluding companies with poor safety records from qualifying to bid on public contracts, explained O’Connor, citing the North Carolina example detailed by Public Citizen. An informal working group convened by the National COSH groups, Public Citizen, and construction and union experts, is now exploring solutions to this problem. Among these would be state legislation and local government ordinances designed to prevent companies with egregious safety records from being awarded government contracts.
But the task includes involves many challenges, including how to ensure that full and accurate safety records are accessible, and that both primary contractors’ and subcontractors’ records are scrutinized. Records indicate that subcontractors are often the companies engaged in the actual work on construction projects.
“Statistics tell us that twelve American workers are likely to die today from a workplace injury. Countless more will be seriously hurt or contract a fatal illness or disease in their workplace,” said Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), in his opening remarks at the April 19 Senate Committee on Health, Education Labor & Pensions hearing on delays in OSHA’s safety-standard process. That any of these disasters should happen on government-contract jobs awarded to companies with poor safety records is a situation that cries out for remedy.
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.