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Construction Safety at Risk, They Warn : 34 County Inspectors Demand More Aid

August 23, 1986|JOHN NEEDHAM | Times County Bureau Chief

Orange County's construction inspectors have petitioned the Board of Supervisors for more help, claiming that they are so overworked that they cannot be responsible for the safety of new roads, bridges and parks.

Thirty-four inspectors signed a two-paragraph statement to the supervisors stating that "our high workload has made it impossible to provide proper protection to the Orange County citizens.

"We cannot and will not accept responsibility for potential injury or harm which may occur to these citizens as a result of our inability to provide appropriate inspections."

The inspectors, who work for the county Environmental Management Agency in the Public Works Department, check roads, street lights, water and gas lines and construction by private developers in unincorporated areas of the county.

Official Agrees--to a Point

Carl Nelson, public works director for EMA, agreed that the inspectors could use more staff but added, "I don't think it's quite as dramatic as their letter would suggest."

Nelson said the inspectors spend more time monitoring roads being built or improved around new subdivisions than checking on bridges or other major structures.

E.J. Hinkson, a supervising construction inspector who has worked for the county for 29 years, said Friday that his group of 20 inspectors must monitor 572 tracts at various stages of development.

"We try to go through an area to be sure a contractor is not working without notification (to the county), which is frequently the case," Hinkson said.

The department's 44 construction inspectors are stretched too thin, he said.

Hinkson said another problem is that the inspectors' headquarters in Santa Ana have only five telephone lines.

Developers are supposed to call for inspections, but "if they can't get in here on five lines, they just don't get their word in and they become frustrated and just put their work in," Hinkson said.

In inspecting construction areas, Hinkson said, he has seen open trenches across streets without barriers or warning to drivers, sidewalk water meters with covers ajar and other potential hazards.

"On every project in my area, every day as I'm working I note hazardous situations and stop to make those corrections," Hinkson said. "Those are taken care of as we see them, but there are a lot I can't get to because of the volume of work. And the liability is there, it's just waiting, and that's a cost to the taxpayers.

Wanted 3 More Inspectors

"And it's just not a taxpayers' cost. Some kid is going to get maimed or what have you. He's out having a good time on his skateboard and falls into a hazardous condition. All the money in the world isn't going to give him his arm back or whatever."

Nelson said he asked for three additional inspectors for the fiscal year that began Aug. 1, but was authorized one. He said questions of safety are "kind of speculative" but characterized the letter to the supervisors as "expressing a proper moral principle here."

The construction inspectors' salaries average about $35,000 a year, Hinkson said. The base salaries are covered by fees charged to developers to build their subdivisions, Nelson said, but the county must pay overtime if necessary.

Nelson said the drop in interest rates had rekindled the county's building boom, creating huge increases in work for the inspectors, but he questioned how long the construction boom would last.

"I'm sure the Board of Supervisors doesn't want to staff up . . . and then have a slump the following year and then have to lay people off," he said. Still, "we do stretch ourselves thin. . . . I sympathize with that. We're asking the (construction inspectors) to do yeoman duty."

Nelson said that inspectors of county-financed projects and building inspectors, who check plumbing, electrical, timber framing, swimming pool installations and other jobs, were not a party to the complaints of the construction inspectors.

Supervisor Thomas F. Riley, whose south county coastal district is experiencing a major part of the construction boom, said that "there may be some justification" for the inspectors' concerns.

Cites County's Growth

Riley said the supervisors were faced with tight budgets, but "in recent times the county's growth has meant we've put a lot of people on."

"If you're going to approve infrastructure, etc., etc., that requires additional services, then you've got to provide those also," Riley said.

Hinkson said the construction inspectors went public with their complaints after a series of meetings with EMA officials in recent months and after seeing their request for additional staff cut in the budget process.

"What we're really looking for by going to the board is that the board would get out their magic wand as they have in the past for other problems" and find additional money, he said.

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