Charging willful and repeated lack of safety precautions for workers building the Waterloo Place downtown apartment complex, the state has fined three contractors more than $130,000.
Workers at the North Calvert Street project were in continuous danger of falling from heights of up to 100 feet, working without guardrails, safety lines, nets or other protection, the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health office charged.
In some cases, only a thin plastic tape was strung across the elevated work platforms to warn employees of the potential danger of falling, MOSH said.
No fatalities or serious fall injuries have been reported at the site over the past year, MOSH officials said. But they noted that falls are the most common cause of accidents and fatalities in the construction industry.
The fines are among the highest imposed at a single construction site in Maryland, reflecting the job safety agency's decision to cite "willful" violations that carry maximum $10,000 fines for each instance. "Serious" violations carry a $1,000 maximum fine.
"The blatant disregard for controlling these hazards is indicative of an egregious situation," said Craig Lowry, MOSH enforcement chief.
"MOSH clearly observed these hazards in plain view on a daily basis and had many visits to the site to get the contractor to control the conditions."
The three contractors have been cited and fined by MOSH previously for the same or similar job safety violations, he noted. The agency has conducted more than a half-dozen inspections of the project, he added.
All of the firms failed to maintain a safety program to prevent dangerous falls, Mr. Lowry said.
Blazer Building Inc., the general contractor from Houston, was fined $69,680 for three "willful," five "repeat" and three other violations. Kountry Drywall Inc. of Irving, Texas, was fined $45,115 for two willful, one repeat, two serious and two other violations. C.D.I. Textures Inc. of Glen Burnie was fined $18,875 for two willful, one repeat and six other violations.
Mr. Lowry said further safety citations are pending against several other contractors on the site, which is being developed on a city-owned block as a four-story, 196-unit residential complex in the Mount Vernon area.
Spokesmen for the companies could not be reached for comment yesterday.
The $19 million project of Summit Properties is located just a half-block from MOSH headquarters, which contributed to increased agency attention.
It is also being built mostly with non-union labor, which attracted the scrutiny of the construction unions. Unions tipped the government to illegal aliens working at the site, and 13 people were arrested in April by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.
A mid-rise residential development in a confined urban space, Waterloo Place does present challenges, Mr. Lowry said.
"There are a lot of fall opportunities crammed into one spot," he said. "Lots of different subcontractors with lots of employees trying to work closely with others."
But since the latest round of safety fines were assessed last week, he observed, "you can see the difference in the work practices -- they're cleaning up the act."
That was not the case one afternoon last month, when Mr. Lowry made an impromptu visit to the construction site.
Two men were working on a third-floor scaffold with no safety lines and no guardrails.
Some of the elevated apartment balconies were properly blocked with wooden rails or permanent iron railings, others were unprotected and open to falls by workers.
Mr. Lowry came across four men installing walls on the second floor. They were not wearing safety belts and lines, and only a flimsy yellow warning tape was stretched across the outside studs, 12 feet off the ground.
"What's protecting you from falling off the edge up there?" he asked the foreman.
Safety belts and lines, the foreman replied, but they only have to be hooked up when people are working within 3 feet of the edge. "That's what OSHA says."
Mr. Lowry told him that was incorrect and walked across the TTC street. As he did, the workers quickly put on safety belts and attached their lines to the steel column.
A minute later, a Blazer foreman walked across the street and accused the MOSH official of harassing his workers.
Mr. Lowry replied that the workers were not using required safety precautions.
"Why are you talking to me, instead of making sure that your employees obey the safety rules to protect themselves?" he asked.
"It's their responsibility. We can't do anything," the foreman said of the subcontractors. "They're not our employees. We've got 300 to 400 people working here, and we can't keep track of them all. It's up to them."
Mr. Lowry sighed and walked away.
"You see the kind of problem we have," he said. " 'It's not my responsibility.' That's the kind of attitude that leads to accidents."