Multimillion dollar bridge project raises safety concerns - FOX Carolina 21

Multimillion dollar bridge project raises serious safety concerns

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It has been a dangerous few years on bridges in Tennessee, as four construction workers have lost their lives doing jobs that always carry a degree of risk.

Now, one landmark bridge that's been closed for repair in Middle Tennessee has caught the eye of state safety inspectors and the Channel 4 I-Team.

It's a construction project worth more than $10 million, and by Tennessee Department of Transportation policy, it had to go to the lowest bidder.

That leaves many to wonder if safety on the site is a high priority.

A man who formerly worked for the company involved in the project snapped photos 60 feet up on the historic Cordell Hull bridge in Carthage.

"I figured somebody's going to get killed. Within a year, somebody's going to get killed on the job," said the former worker, who asked not to be identified.

Imagine stepping onto an icy deck in a blanket of morning fog to perform construction work.

"I told the guys, 'Man, I think we should wait before we have people walking out there,'" the worker said.

The leading edge of the bridge has no temporary handrail or safety cable to clip on to.

"If someone trips or slides on the ice, they're going to fall 60 feet," the worker said.

And where there is a cable, no one wears the required harness that makes it a lifeline.

"Some guys will put the harnesses on, but they won't ever use it. These guys don't even have them on, and this guy don't even have a hard hat on," the worker said.

This $10-million TDOT job is run by Mid-State Construction of Livingston, TN. The company has a good record on paper when it comes to injuries, but in Tennessee the paperwork doesn't always paint a full picture.

Last summer, on another Mid-State Construction bridge job in Franklin County, a worker toppled out of a homemade enclosure, unstrapped and teetering on a lift called a lull.

The heavy basket landed right on top of him.

That injured man may never work again, but he didn't die. And under federal and state law, unless there's a fatality or at least three people go to the hospital, the injury doesn't have to be reported to the state.

And this incident wasn't reported.

"When I brought up some things to them, they say, 'We just take our chances,' which kind of blew my mind," the worker said.

The former worker who took the pictures and made these claims used to work for Mid-State Construction in a high-ranking job. He admits he was fired in December 2012 for recycling a piece of steel and keeping $800.

"They were supposed to give me bonuses after a certain time I was there. I said, 'You're not holding up your end of the deal,'" the man said.

The Channel 4 I-Team wanted to see the risks on site for ourselves, so we first made a trip to the Cordell Hull bridge site in December when there were just a handful of men working.

It was a year and two months into the job, yet it appeared they were just then constructing a handrail system.

It turns out the state had been there two days after Christmas and had seen no handrail - something Mid-State had been previously cited for in Franklin County, where they had that awful fall.

The penalty there was $8,000.

"No, I don't think an $8,000 fine is adequate to change the culture at all," said lawyer Fran Ansley, an activist with the group Bridges to Justice.

When the Channel 4 I-Team went back to the Cordell Hull bridge for a second time in January, a safety watchdog for the group Bridges to Justice joined us.

"You can usually go out to a construction site and see something unsafe within the first 20 minutes," said Josh Wright, with Bridges to Justice.

He said, in many cases, workers lack the training to realize they're being unsafe, but one crane operator seemed to have concerns.

A checklist for one of the cranes in use last summer on the Cordell Hull bridge showed a critical part called the swing brake was broken.

An official with the Crane Operators Union called that "unbelievable," writing, "It's nuts to run a crane without a working swing brake."

All the problems checked off the list led that frustrated operator to write, "Who looks at this s***? Anybody?"

"The equipment's old. I want to use the word raggedy, very unsafe. Operators not trained to use it right," the former worker said.

Back in July 2012, some five months before the former worker signed a confession about his theft and was fired, he wrote himself an email to note issues, because he said he could see that somebody would be killed on the project if things didn't change.

"As of today, I am going to start documenting my concerns with safety. From day one, I have voiced my concerns about all the violations. You can see now that we do just enough to get by and hope an OSHA rep don't come on the site. I'm afraid somebody is going to be seriously hurt or killed if things don't change," he wrote.

Some things did change.

Last week, Mid-State Construction's $8,000 fine was reduced to $6,000, but the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or TOSHA - the agency in charge of safety - said the finding of a repeat serious violation stands even though no one's been injured on the Carthage bridge.

Mid-State Construction would not speak on camera for this story, but company officials did meet with the Channel 4 I-Team for more than an hour.

The company showed evidence that the faulty crane had been fixed and returned to the site by October 2012. It also shared a letter from its insurance carrier, saying there had been only one serious injury reported since before 2007 and its risk score was low, indicating what it called a true commitment to safety.

TDOT gave the Channel 4 I-Team information about the Cordell Hull bridge and the contractor, but they also declined to talk on camera, saying safety enforcement was a matter for TOSHA.

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