Advertisement

MTA’s Tunnel Injury Figures Questioned

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The rate of injuries at the Hollywood Boulevard subway tunnel where an MTA construction worker died of a head injury Saturday was at least 30% higher last year than the national average for heavy construction, according to records obtained by The Times.

In addition, the rate of injuries at a Santa Monica Mountains subway tunnel where six serious accidents have occurred in the past two months--including one resulting from a runaway underground rock train--was nearly 60% higher than last year’s national average for similar work, according to occupational injury reports filed by construction contractors with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

The figures contrast sharply with repeated assertions from the county transit agency, in the two days after the first fatal accident to befall Red Line construction, that the project’s incidence of injuries was far below the national average.

The difference, according to interviews with independent and state workplace safety authorities: The MTA focuses on so-called lost-time cases, rather than total injuries, to determine its overall safety record. The reported lost-time rate for MTA subway contractors is 80% lower than the national average.

Advertisement

Burt Touchberry, a former MTA safety director now working as an industrial safety consultant, said lost-time statistics, which tote up the number of times an injury prevents an employee from returning to work the next day, are an imperfect measure because contractors occasionally send badly injured workers back to work in a reduced capacity.

“Sometimes these Metro Rail work sites end up looking like convalescent homes, with welders and carpenters with broken legs or arms sitting around an office doing filing or answering phones,” he said.

MTA safety director Dan Jackson defended the use of lost-time cases as a measure of safety, stating that it is more valuable to measure “incapacitating” injuries, rather than less severe ones. He said the agency disciplines contractors who send hurt workers back to work before they are ready.

Touchberry and two other authorities say the number of “recordable” injuries at a job site better indicate the frequency and severity of safety lapses because they enumerate all mishaps that send workers to seek a doctor’s care.

Advertisement

These figures are calculated with a formula that takes into account the overall number of injuries and the number of hours worked. They show that the incidence rate of recordable injuries for contractor Tutor-Saliba/Perini in the section of tunnel where the worker died was 15.5 in 1996, while the national average for similar work last year was 11.8. The incidence rate for Indiana-based contractor Traylor Bros./Frontier-Kemper in the Santa Monica Mountains was 20.4.

However, the incidence of lost-time cases for Tutor in that stretch of tunnel was 2.2, while the U.S. average was 4.9 in 1996. The Traylor Bros. tunnel recorded no lost-time injuries last year.

“It is very misleading to only look at lost-time cases as a measure of safety,” said Henry McIntire, a veteran Cal/OSHA tunnel inspector and duty officer. “There’s no doubt that Metro Rail’s injury rate is far above the national average.”

MTA board chairman Larry Zarian said Monday outside the Hollywood headquarters of contractor Tutor-Saliba/Perini that the death of 52-year-old worker Jaime Pasillas was “an awakening for all of us” and ordered a wall-to-wall inspection of tunnel and station construction by agency safety staffers. He also expressed exasperation at the initial lack of cooperation in the investigation by Tutor-Saliba, wondering aloud why company president Ron Tutor had failed to join his early morning news conference.

Tutor officials declined to comment.

MTA safety officials then led reporters on a tour of the tunnel where Pasillas died about 1:10 a.m. Saturday when one of two chains holding a half-ton refuse bin to an overhead gantry broke, sending it crashing into his head. The tunnel was clean and well ventilated, but permeated with a somber mood. Said one of Pasillas’ supervisors, who asked not to be identified: “Everyone working here bears a heavy burden of sorrow.”

According to MTA and state safety inspectors, the investigation into Pasillas’ death is focusing on the tensile strength of the broken chain, noting that it appeared substantially older and thinner than the chain that did not break.

MTA safety engineer Gary Buffington also noted that the refuse bin, called a “muck bucket,” appeared to have been held by the chains at an angle, rather than straight up and down--a factor that could have caused a chain to wear out faster. Additionally, he said the broken chain was tied to the hoist above with a knot, while the unbroken one was attached by a hook.

Advertisement

Buffington and Jackson declined to state whether such configurations could have led to the fatal accident.

But McIntire, who was not involved in the investigation, said he has long discouraged tunnel workers from using chains to suspend heavy objects, preferring high-strength cable instead. He also said that the use of chains of different thicknesses should have been “a red flag” to any supervisor, and that chains become “overstressed” when holding objects at an angle rather than straight down.

State Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles), a candidate for mayor, derided the $5.9-billion subway project for a second day, telling reporters that ‘the gravy train has become a graveyard train.”

A group of MTA critics meanwhile held a memorial service for Pasillas not far from where he died beneath Hollywood Boulevard, and called upon the agency to lay a star in his name in the street’s famed sidwalk.


Advertisement