The state's workplace protection agency said Monday that it has cited a Metro Rail subway construction firm for three serious violations of California tunnel safety rules that endangered the lives of underground workers in Studio City.
During an inspection prompted by a story in The Times on April 28 detailing miners' complaints about tunnel working conditions, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health said it found that the subway builder had for two weeks exposed a crew of employees to unsafe levels of carbon monoxide. The report said the gas came from an improperly maintained diesel tractor that emitted "excessively smoky exhaust" in the tunnel.
Cal/OSHA said its inspectors also observed that supervisors of the firm, Traylor Bros./Frontier-Kemper, failed to require employees to protect their eyes and faces while performing hazardous work, as mandated by state labor law.
Cal/OSHA issued four citations--three classed as serious--on June 18 but announced them only Monday after receiving notice that Traylor Bros. would appeal. The citations carry fines of $3,337.
In addition, the state agency accused the subway builder of shoddy bookkeeping that made it impossible to determine whether the firm's state-certified gas testing technician had properly monitored air quality underground from mid-March to late April, or even whether instruments it used to monitor air quality were properly calibrated.
Cal/OSHA said its examination of gas-testing records during that period did reveal, however, that carbon-monoxide levels had spiked to more than 100 parts per million--five times the legal limit--several times during tunnel excavation under Studio City.
The Times story detailed a reporter's seven-hour visit with a shift of miners March 22. During the visit, the reporter witnessed spotty use of personal protective gear by miners and their foreman, a diesel front loader that spewed excessive levels of carbon monoxide and diesel soot, a ventilation unit that in one instance blew noxious air toward workers, an overloaded personnel-lifting cage and a medical technician working as a gas tester without a state license.
In response to the story, Metropolitan Transportation Authority chief executive Joseph E. Drew wrote to the Federal Transit Administration--which provides half the funding for the subway--saying the report that the carbon monoxide levels in the tunnel exceeded the legal limit was not true.
The letter said, in part: "Gas test records on March 22 revealed that carbon monoxide levels did not exceed 23 parts per million. Current California Code of Regulations indicates a permissible exposure limit of 25 ppm."
Cal/OSHA's report Monday contradicted Drew's letter, declaring that records preserved by air-testing equipment revealed that carbon monoxide had risen to 40 parts per million March 22, between 6 and 6:30 p.m.
The MTA said in a statement Monday that it viewed the citations "as seriously as we do any and all Cal/OSHA citations."
The statement added: "We are going to work with the contractor to ensure these are corrected and that they don't happen again."
Traylor Bros. is prohibited by its contract with the MTA from commenting on the citations.
An MTA spokesman said Drew planned to hold a private meeting today with 100 top executives of firms that build and operate transit systems for the MTA to discuss his vision of the future for mass transportation in the Los Angeles region and the importance he places on construction safety and quality.
The twin tunnels under construction in Studio City are being driven south through the Santa Monica Mountains from the site of a future subway station, which will be built across from Universal Studios on Lankershim Boulevard. The tunnels will ultimately link the San Fernando Valley to a Red Line subway system that will connect the Eastside, Downtown and the Wilshire Corridor.
Robert D'Amato, a veteran safety consultant who has been critical of MTA's relationship with its subway construction workers, expressed outrage that Cal/OSHA had not levied heavier fines.
"The mining and tunneling unit is very lenient--they could have fined up to $7,000 for each violation, and they should have," he said. "Cal/OSHA's own report shows that Traylor does not have an effective program to prevent accidents. High levels of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and diesel soot can have a very deleterious effect on a miner's health in a very short period of time."
Mark Carleson, deputy chief for field operations at Cal/OSHA, said he found the violations disturbing, but noted that unless an injury occurs, penalties for serious violations seldom reach the maximum $5,000 to $7,000 level.
"People sometimes think the penalties are not as high as they should be, but the bottom line is that the contractor has to correct the problem," Carleson said.