Orlando Sentinel: Soto on death of I-4 construction worker
Ulises Corrales Ibarra was killed in a gruesome accident at an Interstate 4 construction site because the Spanish speaker was given directions in English for installing a massive beam, according to a federal probe of the death.
A report by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration states that the interstate’s builder, SGL Constructors, “did not adequately train employees, in their native language of Spanish, to recognize or avoid hazards.”
SGL has relied heavily on minority workers. Arriving from Venezuela nearly two years ago, Corrales Ibarra was part of a crew assigned on Sept. 28 to install and temporarily secure a bridge girder with steel and wood bracing. The concrete beam slipped off its perch and crushed the worker.
OSHA, from its investigation of the fatal accident that injured another worker, fined SGL Constructors a total of $53,976.
The fine is comprised of four $13,494 citations: one for not adhering to a work plan and engineering drawings, two for allowing workers to walk in a fall zone, and one for not instructing workers in their native language of Spanish.
An OSHA website states the case remains open and appears to show that the agency is moving to delete the citation regarding the language barrier, reducing the penalty to nothing, with an “abate” date of May 11. Also shown are the three remaining citations reduced to a combined total penalty of $26,988.
An OSHA official said that further explanation of the citations’ status would require an records request. Such a request typically takes several months for a response. SGL spokeswoman Maritza Ferreira declined to comment on the status of the citations.
U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, D-Kissimmee, said providing safety instruction that workers can understand is “absolutely fundamental.”
He said the death of Corrales Ibarra, 37, speaks to a larger concern he has for the potential for exploiting workers and exposing them to elevated risks.
“We see a lot of structuring where you have subcontractors below subcontractors below subcontractors,” Soto said. “That really obscures who is actually doing the work. It leads to folks being hired who are untrained or undocumented. And they are in a vulnerable spot where they can’t complain because they could be fired.”
From its inquiry into Corrales Ibarra’s death, OSHA states in a recently released report that "the work plans and engineering drawings for temporary wood bracing are in English.”
Corrales Ibarra, who was married and father of a young son, became the fifth worker killed during the over-budget, behind-schedule overhaul of Interstate 4 through the Orlando area.
In a separate development Thursday, the I-4 project was named one of the “Dirty Dozen,” an annual list compiled by an employee-safety advocacy group “highlighting companies that put workers and communities at risk due to unsafe practices.”
The Dirty Dozen list is produced by the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, a federation of local and statewide groups that include unions, health professionals and others promoting worker protections.
“Safety meetings were a joke,” said Pedro Mendez, a former I-4 worker speaking through an interpreter during a safety council conference call.
He said that after each fatality, the job site would be shut down briefly. “But they would never explain to us what happened or how it could have been prevented. It was business as usual as if nothing had happened.”
He said after two and half years of working at heights with large structures and heavy materials, he decided it was not worth the risk.
“I made the very difficult decision to leave that job,” Mendez said. “I have a wife and I have children that I have to support I want to be alive for them.”
Neither SGL Constructors nor the Florida Department of Transportation responded to requests for comment about the OSHA finding and Dirty Dozen report.
I-4 was named a Dirty Dozen workplace because of the five deaths, although much of the 2020 list cites employers, including the American Hospital Association and Trader Joe’s, as not protecting workers from the coronavirus outbreak.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed gaping flaws in the U.S. social and workplace safety net, which make it harder to bring the disease under control,” states a report with the Dirty Dozen list.
The report is dedicated to Li Wenliang, a Chinese doctor who was among the first to raise warnings about COVID-19, a disease that eventually killed him.
Criteria for selection to the Dirty Dozen list includes severity of injuries, exposure to preventable risks, frequency of citations, efforts by workers to improve their conditions, and, this year, the degree of risk from COVID-19.
Research by the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health found that minorities are particularly vulnerable to workplace trauma, reflecting a history of racial and ethnic groups “facing the worst job conditions.”
SGL Constructors is a joint venture of some of the nation’s and world’s largest construction firms: Skanska, a multinational builder and developer based in Sweden; Granite Construction Inc. of California; and Lane Construction Corp., with headquarters in Connecticut and a subsidiary of an Italian conglomerate.
SGL reported earlier this year that it has about 1,000 workers in place along the 21-mile overhaul of I-4, spanning from south Orange County through Orlando to Seminole County. The Florida Department of Transportation recently agreed to pay for cost overruns of nearly $125 million, increasing the project’s original price from $2.3 billion to $2.415 billion.
The joint venture also disclosed in 2017 that minorities account for 66 percent of the I-4 workforce and that 60 percent of all workers are younger than 40. No breakdown of the composition of minorities was given.
Rosa Lozano, an organizer with the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, and working with the safety council, said there is a trend of bigger jobs relying on more extensive subcontracting.
“What we are seeing is a further distancing of responsibility for what happens on these job sites,” she said. “The bigger the job site, the bigger the scope that needs to be monitored and it’s just not prioritized for whose doing the oversight.”
The overhaul of I-4 is the department’s largest and most costly road project ever.
“There should be very clear protocols from every level,” Lozano said. “That’s going to be the most direct way to curb at lot of the fatalities and injuries that are happening on construction sites like the I-4.”
More than two weeks after Corrales Ibarra’s death, SGL announced that I-4 work would “resume with precautionary modifications and safety measures that included expanded girder restraint procedures during installation.”
An extensively detailed, 30-page “Girder Erection Plan” for the first bridge beam installed following the fatal accident stated in capital letters: “AT NO TIME SHALL THE CRANE UNHOOK FROM THE GIRDER PRIOR” to temporary bracing.
The plan, covering elements from hard hats to crane slings, included a check list that called for “Construction Plan and Daily Job Briefing reviewed with entire crew.” There is no reference to potential language barriers.
In 2019, Moody’s Investor Service, issuing a negative outlook for I-4 Mobility Partners’ credit rating, said the over-budget, behind-schedule project was “in accelerated mode, with an above average employee turnover, some of which have limited construction experience.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect that an OSHA web page appears to show the agency is moving to reduce fines for SGL.