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Toughen safety penalties

The circumstances surrounding the on-the-job death of a building-demolition employee a year ago raise troubling questions about the state’s oversight of the industry. Companies contracted to demolish structures at Campbell Industrial Park lacked state licenses and faced no scrutiny leading up to the accident. Penalties for ignoring state requirements need to be increased to prevent avoidable accidents.

Juan Navarro, 54, of El Monte, Calif., died in May 2009 when an abandoned 168-foot cement preheater tower collapsed on him during the demolition of the tower, silos and other structures at the Hawaiian Cement site. According to the state Labor Department, Navarro was cutting into a leg of the preheating tower when a popping was heard. He and other workers ran away from the tower but Navarro had returned when the tower collapsed on him.

Federal and state demolition safety standards say such work should be done from the outside of the structure to be demolished if it has been damaged. Michael Leary, president of Oahu-based Island Demo Inc., who had put in a bid for the job, said he would have brought down the heavily rusted tower from the outside with high-reach demolition machines, with workers situated outside the building.

California-based AG Transport, Navarro’s employer, lacked a contractor’s license in both California and Hawaii to perform demolitions and is listed in a Dun & Bradstreet risk report as a freight transportation company. Its owner told Labor Department officials that it had engaged in scores of demolition jobs. The general contractor in the Hawaiian Cement job, Hawaii-based San Construction LLC, put AG Transport in charge of the demolition.

The Hawaii Occupational Safety and Health Division fined each of the companies a piddling $750, AG Transport for failing to submit a written engineering risk survey and San Construction for failing to adequately oversee the project. State Labor Director Darwin Ching said the fines were based on state law, including the factor of the worker’s "contributory negligence."

"Sometimes you can’t prevent everything from happening," said Ching, who left office last month to run for city prosecutor.

Ching said companies that violate safety rules tend to lose out on bidding for future jobs. Meanwhile, AG Transport still faces state investigation for failure to seek licensing and faces a civil lawsuit by the Navarro family.

Next year’s Legislature is expected to consider increasing fines for contracting penalties, but another need is to step up state oversight. Violation citations issued by the Labor Department have decreased from 1,557 in fiscal year 2000-01 to 838 in 2007-08, as the number of state inspectors monitoring construction sites has shrunk. The trend must be reversed.


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