March 19, 2009 The Pump Handle 4Comment

We’ve written before about Alexandra Berzon’s fantastic Las Vegas Sun articles on construction-site dangers, so we were delighted to learn that the paper has won the 2009 Roy W. Howard public service reporting award from the Scripps Howard Foundation for its coverage of Las Vegas construction deaths.

In all, Berzon wrote 53 stories and the Sun carried 21 editorials related to construction safety. The Sun began its reporting in response to a horrific death toll among construction workers: nine had died on Las Vegas Strip construction site during a 16-month period. The coverage explored how the rush to build led to safety shortcuts, and how state occupational safety authorities routinely withdrew citations for safety violations.

The award doesn’t just acknowledge great reporting; it also recognizes that the Sun’s coverage got results. Here’s the Sun’s description of what happened once the paper started focusing on construction safety issues:

The Sun’s coverage led to calls for reform in Congress and the Nevada Legislature. The U.S. House and Senate held hearings on federal OSHA and, citing the Sun’s stories, urged swift action. Sens. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy, Harry Reid and others wrote to then President Bush to demand reforms.

None of those efforts stopped the mounting death toll immediately. Two more workers died in the spring.

But after the 11th fatality, construction workers and their union leaders, newly aware of facts surrounding the deaths and OSHA’s conduct, walked off the job at the MGM Mirage’s CityCenter and the adjacent Cosmopolitan.

They refused to return until the contractor at both projects, Perini Building Company, agreed to safety improvements.

A 12th death occurred in June just as those improvements began. But it was the last fatal accident.

Safety improved. Not one worker has died on the Strip in nine months.

This is a good reminder of why high-quality journalism is so important – because it can draw the kind of attention and analysis that’s necessary for getting laws and policies changed.

The article also emphasizes that the Sun’s award-winning coverage was a team effort:

“The Sun is proud to have won this important national award,” said Managing Editor Michael J. Kelley. “It is a tribute to the in-depth journalism that we specialize in. It is also well-deserved recognition for Ali Berzon, the reporter, who has written more than 50 stories on this situation; her editor, Drex Heikes, who first realized that the mounting worker death toll on Strip construction projects should be investigated, and editorial writers Dave Clayton and Matt Hufman.

“It has been an excellent team effort, also involving photographers, designers, graphic artists and headline writers, and it continues as we work to ensure that needed changes in workplace safety practices in Las Vegas actually are made and that state safety regulators actually do their jobs.”

Congratulations to Alexandra Berzon and the entire team at the Las Vegas Sun! Check out their award-winning coverage here.

P.S. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel won a Scripps Howard award, too (the Edward J. Meeman Award for environmental reporting), for its “Chemical Fallout” series by Susanne Rust and Meg Kissinger. This series also won a Polk award last month.

4 thoughts on “Las Vegas Sun Honored for Construction Deaths Reporting

  1. Congratulations to Alexandra Berzon! She’s joined the ranks of the few but exceptionally talented reporters who learn the ins-and-outs of OHS policies and practices, apply their investigative skills into unchartered territory, and never lose sight that the heart of their reporting involves workers and their families–the people who are supposed to be kept whole by our Federal and State workplace S&H laws.

  2. It is truly amazing to see the effort put forth by a country in need. in these trying times the best thing possible is to keep moving forward and to keep building and progressing to a better tommorrow. Construction is the cornner stone of our foundation that makes this country what it is.

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