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Originally published Saturday, February 10, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Light-rail contractor didn't set culture of safety, audit finds

The contractor digging Sound Transit's Beacon Hill tunnel, where a worker died this week, failed to establish a culture of safety on the...

Seattle Times staff reporter

The contractor digging Sound Transit's Beacon Hill tunnel, where a worker died this week, failed to establish a culture of safety on the job site last year, an audit found.

The contractor, Obayashi Corp., is performing the tunnel work where a small supply train hit a parked locomotive and derailed early Wednesday morning.

A mechanic, 49-year-old Michael Merryman, died of internal injuries when he was thrown from the train or jumped outside the tunnel entrance.

The cause of that accident remains under investigation, said Joni Earl, the transit agency's chief executive officer.

But this was not the first such wreck at the tunnel.

Sound Transit launched the audit following a previous incident. On Oct. 27, a supply train crashed because of brake failure and human error, Earl said.

Transit managers said Obayashi has improved its practices since the audit, and Sound Transit now conducts unannounced brake inspections.

A company spokesman said Friday: "Safety is the No. 1 priority at all Obayashi work sites, and we're committed to improving on our exemplary safety record. We continue to work with Sound Transit and state investigators to determine the cause of Wednesday's tragic incident, and reiterate our sympathies to the family of the victim."

In October, the brakes failed on a train moving at "high speed," an Obayashi report said. Five workers, two of whom broke company rules by riding on a flatbed car, managed to jump off and avoid major injuries, Obayashi said. The report called for a pair of supervisors to serve three-day suspensions.

Sound Transit's audit, released Friday, further found that while the company has good safety procedures, its Beacon Hill managers were not participating in safety meetings and inspections. Those duties were left to Obayashi's safety manager. Frequent employee turnover made it difficult to promote safety awareness, said the audit, completed last month by an independent consultant.

"There does not appear to be a consistent application of health and safety responsibility and accountability for project management from the Project Manager down to the Front Line Supervisors," it said.

Their participation is crucial because it sets the tone for the whole crew, to be safety-conscious at all times, said Ahmad Fazel, Sound Transit's light-rail director. "It just takes a moment for someone not to be paying attention, for something to go wrong," he said.

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Last summer, an inspection by the state Department of Labor and Industries found zero violations.

The accident site, on the hill's western slope near Interstate 5, remains closed for investigation, Earl said. Obayashi has resumed work on a short aerial trackway east of the hill, and on an underground station.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com.

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