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Hawaii News

Union official wants safety law answers

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State Sen. Dwight Takamine, right, and state Rep. Karl Rhoads spoke yesterday during a legislative meeting to review the suspected inadequacies of a probe about the tower collapse at Hawaiian Cement in Kapolei that killed a worker last year. Labor Department Director Darwin Ching, as well as officials with AG Transport and San Construction, also took part in the meeting.
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State Labor Director Darwin Ching listened to testimony yesterday at a joint Senate-House Labor Committee regarding a 2009 tower collapse.

A laborers union official demanded yesterday that legislators press the state on why it failed to enforce safety laws to prevent the kind of accident that killed a demolition worker last year.

Juan Navarro, 54, of El Monte, Calif., died when a 168-foot tower collapsed on him at Campbell Industrial Park on May 16, 2009.

"The point is, a worker died and we need to know why," said Alfred Lardizabal, director of the government relations for the Hawaii Laborers’ Union. "Somehow this company got through the net. We’re asleep at the wheel. … We have a disconnect here."

Lardizabal, who spoke at a joint Senate-House Labor Committee meeting yesterday to look into Navarro’s death, said the state needs more labor inspectors. He also asked for legislators to support reform of worker safety laws, including increasing penalties for violators.

While a contractor is required to develop a written engineering survey as a safety measure in the demolition of a structure, city and state labor department officials said they do not check for compliance before work starts.

State labor officials said Navarro’s employer, AG Transport owner Art Gersjes, developed an "oral survey"—meaning he discussed the job with workers—but did not put it in writing.

State Labor Director Darwin Ching said the $750 in penalties assessed to each of two contractors was based on state laws created more than 25 years ago.

Because of state budget cutbacks, he said, there are fewer inspectors in his department and a reduction in the number of safety citations.

But state Sen. Dwight Takamine said the reductions during Gov. Lingle’s administration occurred even when the economy was strong.

The number of citations totaled 1,557 in fiscal year 2000-2001 but dropped to 986 in fiscal 2005-2006 and 838 in 2007-2008, according to the state Labor Department.

AG Transport was fined $750 for failing to have a written engineering survey of the demolition of the cement-preparation tower that collapsed while Navarro was preparing for its demolition.

The general contractor, San Construction LLC, was fined $750 for failing to adequately supervise the work.

Based on testimony of some employees, Ching said, Navarro ran out of the tower after hearing a pop but for some reason went back into the tower.

In law, Ching said, there is a factor called "contributory negligence," meaning a worker is required to exercise ordinary care for safety.

"Sometimes you can’t prevent everything from happening," Ching said.

But state Senate Labor Committee Chairman Dwight Takamine said the accident might have been averted if the contractor had provided a written engineering survey.

He said that, according to the labor investigation, AG Transport was aware of rust problems on the legs of the tower but failed to re-evaluate its demolition plan, which he called a case of "plain indifference."

Labor Department officials said an inspector, Conroy Dang, confirmed Gersjes had experience in demolition by viewing videotapes and other documentation about prior jobs.

Dang said Gersjes claimed his business has done many demolition jobs in California, Nevada and Arizona.

The licensing boards in California and Hawaii told the Star-Advertiser there is no record of Gersjes or AG Transport possessing a contractor’s license, which is required for demolition work.

After repeated requests for comment on the matter, Hawaii labor officials said they do not have Gersjes’ California contractor’s license number, and Ching said labor safety officials do not issue contractor licenses or enforce such licensure requirements.

Krisann Chasarik, spokeswoman for the California Department of Labor, has told the Star-Advertiser that her department’s database and regional offices have no record of demolition permits issued to AG Transport or Art Gersjes.

Gersjes and San Construction official Sanford Ota were unavailable for comment.


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