Courting the absurd

A bridge worker falls to his death -- and the contractor avoids all penalties on a bizarre technicality
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Click here to read about how the mainstream press fumbled on the Cal/OSHA probes

gwschulz@sfbg.com

It didn't matter how soon paramedics arrived. Kevin Noah, a 42-year-old carpenter with three sons, had no chance. The accidental 50-foot plunge from his perch on the Golden Gate Bridge killed him immediately.

Noah's dizzyingly high station was a mere cross section of rebar — the slender iron braids that are often seen protruding from construction sites and provide a structure with skeletal support — inside an anchorage house located on a landbound portion of the bridge's southern end.

Moments before on that August 2002 morning, Noah had been performing his normal duties, receiving planks of wood from another worker for use in forming a temporary frame to contain a wall of fresh concrete. The bridge was a year into phase two of its multimillion-dollar retrofit, which today is nearly complete.

Suddenly, the clip on Noah's brace slid off the edge of an open-ended piece of rebar, and a nearby worker looked up just in time to see Noah's body collide with the extended boom of an industrial cherry picker before falling the rest of the way to the ground, according to an account in public workplace-safety records.

In February 2003, Cal/OSHA, of California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health, concluded its investigation and penalized the retrofit's prime contractor, joint venture Shimmick-Obayashi, for, among other things, allegedly failing to properly rig Noah's fall protection and not providing workers with scaffolding to stand on in construction areas where the footing was less than 20 inches wide. Fines for the violations — three of them designated by the agency as serious — totaled more than $26,000.

But Shimmick-Obayashi wouldn't pay a dime.

The outfit immediately turned to the Cal/OSHA Appeals Board, and since such cases are backlogged statewide, the matter didn't reach an administrative judge until this year, when attorneys for Shimmick-Obayashi presented a peculiar defense. Cal/OSHA, they argued, sent the company citations through the mail that failed to list the full legal name of the company: the mailings were addressed to Shimmick-Obayashi instead of Shimmick Construction Company, Inc./Obayashi Corporation, Joint Venture.

The misstatement was akin to a cop failing to note "Esq." or "Jr." on a parking ticket. Cal/OSHA pleaded with the judge, Barbara Steinhardt-Carter, that "it is against civil law, board precedent, and public policy to dismiss this matter based on a minor technical fault that misled no one and caused no prejudice."

Steinhardt-Carter, however, bought the company's claim and ruled earlier this year that Shimmick-Obayashi was liable for none of the fines, even though Cal/OSHA got the name it used from the company's business cards.

Throughout a three-year period during which the parties exchanged memos, motions, and discovery material, the contractor's lawyers never mentioned a problem with the original citations, Cal/OSHA spokesperson Dean Fryer told the Guardian, and variations of the name Shimmick-Obayashi appear on several court documents. The move was a last-minute Hail Mary by a cunning industry lawyer who represents several major players in the business. And it worked.

"The outcome of this case is really surprising and disappointing to our staff," Fryer said. "They went through a long and thorough investigative process, and their work is now basically disposed of."

That Shimmick-Obayashi attorney, Robert D. Peterson, knows more about workplace-safety laws than most. He literally wrote the Cal/OSHA handbook commonly used by employers today and served as chief counsel to the appeals board until 1978.

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