On the eve of international Workers’ Memorial Day (4/28), Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette displays again his journalist acumen, particularly on health and safety issues for workers.  Thirty years ago today, at the construction of the cooling towers at the Pleasants Power Station at Willow Island, West Virginia, workers were hoisting up a massive bucket of concrete.  As Ward writes:

“The cable hoisting that bucket of concrete went slack. The crane that was pulling it up fell toward the inside of the tower. Scaffolding followed. The previous day’s concrete, Lift 28, started to collapse.  Concrete began to unwrap off the top of the tower. First it peeled counter-clockwise, and then in both directions. A mess of concrete, wooden forms and metal scaffolding crumbled to the ground.  51 construction workers were on the scaffold at the time. They all plunged to their deaths.”

“Thirty years later, the Willow Island disaster is still considered the worst construction accident in U.S. history.”

As we’ve learned (or maybe not) from other preventable workplace deaths and disabilities, the cause is often more than one factor.  Willow Island was no different.  Ward writes:

“..a mix of safety lapses combined to bring the tower crashing down. Concrete in the previous day’s lift hadn’t hardened enough to hold the scaffolding. Key bolts meant to attach the scaffolding to the tower were missing. An elaborate concrete hoisting system was modified without proper engineering review. Contractors were rushing to speed construction, perhaps overlooking important safety measures along the way.”

“‘There were redundant features here that, if they had corrected them, this wouldn’t have happened,’ said Stan Elliott, who was then and is now the area director for OSHA.  ‘If they had put the bolts in, it probably wouldn’t have happened.  If they had let the concrete cure, it probably wouldn’t have happened.  But when you put all of these things together all on the same day at the same time, this is what happened.'”

Ward’s article could not be more timely or relevant for Workers’ Memorial Day because it highlights issues that still exists today, 30 years after the Willow Island disaster:

  • Inadequate penalties: OSHA cited the Willow Island contractors for 10 willful and 10 serious violations, and proposed a penalty of $108,300.  OSHA and the contractor agree to settle the case for $85,500, or about $1,700 per dead worker.
  • No criminal sanctions: OSHA referred the case for a possible criminal investigation (under Section 17(e) of the OSH Act) to the U.S. Department of Justice, for a criminal investigation.  No charges were ever filed.
  • Blame the workers: The contractor, United Engineers and Constructors Inc., hired a consulting firm to discredit OSHA’s evidence that the concrete has not been properly cured which was a major contributor to the disaster.  The consultants said “the problems originated due to lack of understanding of the scaffold system by the workers, and also due to its systematic misuse. Lack of technical and management supervision was also an underlying cause to this collapse.”
  • Ignoring previous warning signs: Information gathered by Public Citizen’s Health Research Group suggested that an OSHA inspector warned that the scaffolding used on the tower would not hold the intended load, and that the single (only) temporary stairs would not suffice is workers needed to exit the scaffolding in an emergency.
  •  Disconnect between in-lab performance and real-world application: Ward writes:
    “…the entire scaffolding and crane system was based on elaborate geometry. Each crane had to be located at a certain spot at the top of the tower, and each bucket loaded and hoisted from another certain spot on the ground. If everything was placed just right, the angles lined up to give the system enough strength. If the angles were off, the strength just wasn’t there.  Elliott said OSHA discovered that, to cut corners on construction time, management and workers were loading concrete from different spots. The angles were wrong, weakening the entire system. ‘The concept was wonderful, but the implementation left something to be desired,” Elliott said.”
An eerie feeling came over me as I read this recap, reminding me of what we heard during the Sago mine disaster investigation about construction of the permanent seals.  The foremen and contractors building the wall between the abandoned and active area of the Sago mine were not told or trained or didn’t understand that the seals had to be built exactly as engineered.  There was no room for error, no adequate safety margin built-in, to allow for any deviations.  (Yet we should have known that constructing a permanent seal in a laboratory or an experimental mine is likely quite different from building one underground.)
  • Special investigation: Six months after the disaster, then Governor of WV, John “Jay” Rockefeller, created the Gov’s Commission on Willow Island to “conduct a comprehensive and detailed investigation into the collapse, evaluate the facts and circumstances surrounding the collapse and determine, if possible, the cause or causes.”  Ward writes that much of the report criticized OSHA:

“Commission members were furious that OSHA officials would not answer their questions, citing the federal criminal probe. They were especially upset that OSHA would not inspect all other cooling tower projects, and assure the public no repeats of Willow Island would ever happen.  The commission report did discuss one option for West Virginia officials unhappy with OSHA’s performance: Create their own state workplace safety program.”

“In the 27 years since, there has been little, if any, talk of West Virginia forming its own workplace safety agency.  And, West Virginia remains one of 26 states without a public employee OSHA program. [Thanks Ken Ward for reminding Gazette readers of this fact; I fear many do not know it.]

  • Dangerously slow rulemaking process: It was more than 7 years after the Willow Island disaster when OSHA proposed rules to protect workers during poured-concrete construction projects, but it took another disaster in Bridgeport, Connecticut (which killed 28 workers) before the OSHA moved to finalize the rules.  Ward reminds us that the L’Ambiance Plaza disaster on April 23, 1987, occurred four days short of the 10-year anniversary of Willow Island.  The final OSHA rule on concrete and masonry construction was issued in June 1988, and improved scaffolding rules, not until 1990.

Read all of Ken Ward’s series “Willow Island Revisted” and send an email to the city editor at the Charleston Gazette. Robert J. Byers robbyers@wvgazette.com or the publisher Betty Chilton
echilton@wvgazette.com to let them know you appreciate Ken’s reporting.  (I bet they hear plenty from industry and government types who don’t like his dogged reporting; time for them to hear from those of us who DO appreciate his talents.)

On this day reserved to remember those who die on-the-job, and those who are made ill, injured or otherwise disabled by their work, send a letter to your Members of Congress telling them to support the OSHA improvement legislation (S1244 and HR 2049) and the S-MINER Act (HR 2768).  The OSHA related bills include provisions to increase criminal penalties, improve protections for whistleblowers and creating rights for family-member victims of workplace fatalities.

Celeste Monforton, MPH is with the Project on Scientific Knowlege and Public Policy (SKAPP).  She worked for 11 years at OSHA (1991-1995) and MSHA (1996-2001).