October 19, 2010 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 5Comment

Estevan R. Benavidez’s family says he was a happy-to-lucky, 20 year old. He graduated from Miami (AZ) High School in 2008, was a talented tattoo artist, liked to fish, eat junk food, and spend time with his young daughter. On January 9, 2010 he was working for Ames Construction as a laborer at the Freeport McMoRan copper mine in his hometown. He reported to work at 6:30 am, but he never made it home alive.

Benavidez was working with several other men to construct a new reservoir at the surface copper mine. The large lined reservoir holds a sulfuric acid mix used to extract the copper from the ore. The men were using excavators and rope straps to maneuver a 400 foot section of 24-inch polyethylene pipe down into the reservoir. The huge pipe got stuck, and the men used the straps and tugs with the excavator to it to try unjam it. When the excavator pulled it, the 20,000 pound pipe shifted. It knocked down the foreman Kevin Frantti and fatally struck 20-year old Estevan R. Benavidez. The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (MSHA) Fatality Investigation report says:

“The accident occurred because contractor management policies and controls were inadequate. A risk assessment to discuss the task and identify possible hazards was not conducted prior to placing the pipe. The procedures failed to ensure that persons stay clear of suspended loads.”

MSHA threw the book at Ames Construction on Feb 28 with a $70,000 penalty for an unwarrantable failure to comply with a safety standard directly related to the fatality: prohibiting workers from being under a suspended load. They also received nine other citations, totaling almost $167,000 for violating other safety and health rules. Ames is contesting the citations and penalties.

Is Ames Construction some fly-by-night company with no experience doing this type of work??

The company’s website suggests otherwise:

“Ames Construction has been extensively involved in mine development, facility construction, contract mining and mine reclamation work for many large mining companies. Our projects [include]…complicated structural and mechanical modifications and renovations of existing processing facilities.”

Their customers include Newmont, Barrick Gold, BHP, AngloGold and RioTinto mining companies at operations located in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah. Ames boast about their attention to safety, but that doesn’t seem to jive with the safety violations observed by federal inspectors. Besides MSHA’s findings related to the fatality at the Miami, Arizona copper mine, during a routine inspection in March 2010 at AngloGold’s Cresson Project in Colorado, Ames Construction received nine citations for violating safety standards. These included inadequate fall protection, and failing to have a competent person examine the workplace, assess potential risks and fix hazards. For this inspection alone, the company was assessed $140,436 in penalties. Just two months earlier at this same mine, Ames was assessed more than $14,000 for four other safety violations, including a failure to examine equipment for defects before using it. Ames Construction has also been cited this year for safety violations at Barrick’s Meikle and Cortez mines in Nevada.

I’m trying to reconcile this troubling violation history with the safety awards and recognition given to Ames in recent years, including:

*The Utah Association of General Contractors (ACG) recognized Ames Construction with its 2009 Platinum Award for Safety Excellence for having an insurance “experience modification rate” (EMR) that is 25% below the national average.

*The Utah Safety Council’s 2009 Award of Merit for “outstanding safety performance.”

*The Wyoming Contractors Association 2009 First Place Safety Award for having more than “200,000 man-hours worked with no recorded injury.”

*The Arizona Chapter Associated General Contractors 2009 Safety Award for over 1 million man hours worked without a lost-time injury.

*MSHA’s Certificate of Achievement, Sentinels of Safety award, Western Region, Small Pit Group for outstanding safety record in 2008 – 8,374 employee-hours worked without a lost workday injury.

It makes me wonder, as I’ve done in the past (here, here) how we could devise a safety performance metric that would go beyond rates of lost work time. Sure, whether workers sustain an injury is something to pay attention to, no doubt. But, with some employers’ policies that discourage injury reporting, workers’ reticence about telling their boss about a chronic work-related health problems, or workers’ comp rules that compel workers to return to work before they are fully healed, lost-time injury rates alone don’t cut it.

What about a safety performance metric that includes the company’s record (not just one worksite’s) of violating federal or state safety regulations. Now that’s something to consider in a company’s respect for workers’ safety. How about the company’s record for adopting (or Ignoring) recommended industry practices. Yes, I think I’d throw that into the mix. What about repeated violations of safety and health laws, forcing employees to work off the clock, not paying them the legal wage and overtime, or retaliating against them for raising safety concerns?

How much credence do you give to safety awards based on lost-time injuries? Are you more likely to believe a safety award bestowed by a federal agency than one given by an industry trade association?

In my attempt to learn about Ames Construction’s safety record, I read about their involvement in another fatal injury incident in October 2008 at a different surface copper mine. It occurred at the Kennecott mine in Magma, Utah and also involved high-density polyethylene pipe that was going to be used for a tailings (mine waste) reservoir. An 81 year old worker, who was delivering the pipe for Ames, was fatally struck by a piece of pipe while unloading it off a flat bed truck. Ames was cited for violating a mandatory MSHA safety standard and assessed a $13,268 penalty. They contested the MSHA finding, arguing that they were not responsible for the unloading of the pipe or the actions of the deceased worker. In a decision issued in March 2010, the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission disagreed and upheld MSHA’s citation and penalty. Ames Construction has not yet paid the fine.

5 thoughts on “Contractor racks up mine safety violations and unpaid penalties, also wins safety awards

  1. I think it is appropriate to look at a lot of factors besides lost work hours. I was trying to come up with a way to measure which grocery store I should go to. Locally Owned? Union? Distance? Organic? OSHA regulation infractions? Local Inspection reports? Number of full-time employees with benefits compared to part-time no-benefit employees? For your mining company I am sure engineering and operations training credentials should also be looked into. And even how many of its employees (or subcontractors) are allowed to work in the states.

  2. Since fatalities are (relatively) rare, and we don’t know what (other than bad luck) turns a near-miss infraction into a fatal incident, it makes sense that a much more useful predictive measure would be infractions rather than fatalities or serious injuries. Most employers here (UK) ask that you report near-misses and rule-breaches as well as anything that actually causes injury to internal management; these incidents are then taken seriously (or should be!) when it comes to formulating H&S policies and especially procedures. If you wait until you’ve actually had a serious accident to take preventative measures, and had warnings in the form of staff complaints or near-misses, you’re likely to be on the wrong end of corporate manslaughter charges or a personalised prosecution under the 1974 Act.

    Since I doubt that kind of legislation would fly in the States (what? company directors facing criminal charges?!), I propose that all the guilty suits (and all the tough guys in the field who insist safety rules are for sissies) should be shut in a construction site with inadequate supervision, and left to either kill themselves, or come around to a sensible attitude.

  3. My uncle’s pick up has a contractor’s racks it is design like a horse where hes employees on farm can ride with him and hold on the horse racks as my uncles describe it.

  4. Dear Sir,

    Please Send penalty Rate in Construction in any type of Industry

    Thanking You

    with Regards
    Santosh Kumar

    Safety Officer

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