Crane involved in fatal Winters accident lacked required state certification

dvsmith@sacbee.comJune 26, 2014 

The crane involved in the deadly basket plunge that killed two workers on a Winters bridge construction site last month lacked certification and should not have been in use, state safety officials said.

Peter Melton, a California Division of Occupational Safety and Health spokesman, said the certification for the crane operated by Burlingame-based Disney Construction had lapsed days before the incident. Such heavy equipment must be recertified annually, Melton said.

No citations have been issued and a final determination of what caused the accident could be months away as Cal-OSHA has six months to conclude its investigation, Melton said. Richard Disney, president of the Bay Area builder, did not return calls from The Sacramento Bee.

The two men working for Disney Construction were in a crane-hoisted basket high above construction on the new Winters Road Bridge early May 30 when their gondola broke free, plunging them 80 feet onto timbers covering a three-stories-deep hole dug for footings on the site.

The fatal incident happened just days before the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s annual National Safety Stand-Down to raise awareness of and prevent falls in construction.

Federal OSHA officials say fatalities by falls are a leading cause of construction deaths nationally, accounting for about a third of construction deaths reported in 2012. Falls were also the leading cause of fatal injuries to California construction workers, according to the state’s Department of Industrial Relations.

Disney Construction had two cranes at the site below Railroad Avenue in Winters. One crane, Melton said, was used as a pile driver to punch holes in the earth for rebar. The ill-fated second crane lifted the gondola carrying the two men.

Cal-OSHA authorities temporarily shut down equipment on the $12.3 million bridge project spanning Putah Creek connecting Yolo and Solano counties, placing an “order prohibiting use” on the two cranes, Melton said.

The pile-driving crane that had been idled as a precaution has since been cleared for use. The crane that lifted the construction workers remains dry-docked while it is checked for mechanical issues, Melton said.

The work for investigators now includes interviewing workers and checking Disney’s safety protocols, he said.

“They will ask workers and supervisors if a safety procedure was in place and was it followed,” Melton said. “What were the employees doing at this time? What happened in this instance?”

After an incident, investigators commonly examine a company’s injury and illness prevention program, a Cal-OSHA-mandated plan that includes records of scheduled and periodic inspections; hazard assessments; and safety communications and training tailored to their project. They will also determine how much weight the cranes and other heavy equipment could bear and whether the equipment was being used as designed, Melton said.

Crews have been at work on the new span since September. The historic Winters Road Bridge, which dated back to the early 1900s, had been removed and a temporary span erected to replace it during construction.

The Winters bridge project is Disney’s first for Solano County, the lead agency on the project. The company beat out six other firms for the contract to build the bridge, said Matt Tuggle, a Solano County engineering manager. Until the May deaths, the job had been incident-free since it began in September, officials said.

Solano County is working with Winters, Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration on construction to replace the bridge.

Disney, which touts its expertise in “complex heavy civil construction projects” on its website, erected bridges on the Devil’s Slide section of Highway 1 in 2006 and worked on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge in 2008.

Disney was cited for five safety violations in 2006 during work on a South Bay construction project and again in 2008 at a South Bay bridge construction site for four breaches of safety regulations deemed “serious” by regulators.

Falls are the leading cause of death for construction workers, says the state’s Department of Industrial Relations. The construction industry had the second-highest number of occupational deaths in California from 2009-2012 with 215 fatalities, according to the department. Only the combined trade, transportation and utilities industry reported more deaths – 397 – during that span.

Update (June 27): This story has been corrected to reflect that Cal-OSHA temporarily shut down equipment, but not the entire bridge construction project itself.

Call The Bee’s Darrell Smith, (916) 321-1040.

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