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Originally published May 11, 2014 at 7:32 PM | Page modified May 12, 2014 at 4:29 PM

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Worker safety a bright spot on troubled Hwy. 99 tunnel project

Construction teams on the Highway 99 tunnel job have worked about 3¼ million hours so safely that the lead contractors are getting a big discount on workers’-compensation insurance.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

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Construction teams at the Highway 99 tunnel have worked 3¼ million hours without any injuries that forced people off the job, project managers say.

It’s a strong enough performance for the state to give Seattle Tunnel Partners (STP) a 32 percent discount on its workers’-compensation insurance, saving the lead contractors thousands of dollars.

Cue the joke now: “Of course nobody’s getting hurt, because Bertha’s not moving.”

Despite the stall of drilling machine Bertha in December, and a repair shutdown estimated to extend through March, 400 people are still on the job. They’re building the north and south tunnel portals, an operations building and Sodo road ramps.

Worker safety provides some consolation at a time when the state’s program administrator, Todd Trepanier, wrote to lawmakers recently that “we remain disappointed with the current status of the project.”

Seattle’s two transit tunnels under construction also show relatively good safety records, while construction fatalities statewide have declined over the years.

STP isn’t necessarily doing anything unique, but safety director Dan Weathers has insisted on following what might be considered best practices.

“Overall, I’d say they have a pretty good record,” said Keith Weir, assistant executive secretary for the Seattle Building & Construction Trades Council. “Nothing jumps out as a new trick.”

When someone is hurt, Weir said, STP strives to prevent lost time by assigning light duty. Someone with a leg injury might keep a fire watch over a welding crew, he said. The state encourages this, said Elaine Fischer, spokeswoman for the Department of Labor and Industries.

L&I has assigned STP a 0.68 experience factor this year, meaning its workers’-comp premiums are 68 percent of average.

For instance, STP pays $2.29 an hour to insure concrete installers, compared with $3.37 average. The safety record also benefits workers, who have slightly less money taken out of paychecks for workers’ comp.

Sound Transit contractor Jay Dee-Coluccio-Michels, which is building light-rail tunnels from Capitol Hill to downtown, and from Northgate to Husky Stadium, carries a 0.75 experience factor The partners building the UW-Capitol Hill transit tunnels, Traylor-Frontier-Kemper, landed a 0.77 factor.

“Anything under 1’s a good employer,” said Brian Van, vice president of the Seattle chapter of the American Society of Safety Engineers.

On a tour, Weathers described some safety measures at the tunnel job site:

• STP ordered a subcontractor to replace an inspector who was examining carbon fiber wrap on the old Alaskan Way Viaduct but didn’t fasten himself to a manlift.

• Workers must complete an Activity Hazard Analysis before each task. One such document identified cumulative “dust exposure” as a hazard of concrete cutting, so the job was altered, to sprinkle water over the dust.

• Tunnel machine Bertha contains lifting ports, so pulleys and stretchers can be fastened near the cutterhead, to evacuate an injured worker. Weathers said that reassurance proved important in January, when workers were leery about searching for blockages around the cutterhead under more than two times the normal atmospheric pressure. The job was accomplished without injuries.

• Workers must be harnessed or tethered when they are within 15 feet of a ledge or 4 feet above the next level.

• Gloves are required everywhere.

• STP operates a rubber-tired vehicle instead of the traditional supply locomotive, to ferry concrete tunnel segments from the Sodo yard to the front of the drill — eliminating risk of derailments. A mechanic working for Sound Transit contractor Obayashi Corp. was killed at Beacon Hill when a supply train crashed and derailed in 2007.

• A crane and cables provided extra support when workers cut away a temporary steel beam, in the tunnel pit. Brackets were holding the beam, but the crane ensured it would be stable, even if struck by the dirt loader working nearby. This literally was a belt-and-suspenders method.

That’s not to say things are perfect. Workers have filed 63 injury claims, resulting in $268,976 in payouts, mostly for medical exams or treatment, according to L&I records released to The Seattle Times.

STP project manager Chris Dixon said the number isn’t high, considering that 3,952 people have worked anywhere from days to three years at the tunnel job sites.

Three were ruled lost-time injuries, L&I records say. Dixon said in those cases the injuries were reported to L&I after workers left the tunnel job for other reasons.

Also, STP was fined $3,600, and told to provide protective gear plus a wash basin, after alkaline grout residues caused a “chemical burn injury” to a worker in 2012.

Redundant fall protection and mandatory gloves are being adopted by other major contractors, said Mandi Kime, Seattle-area safety director for the Association of General Contractors. Some are striving to eliminate ladders, she said.

Kime said contractors increasingly track their injury-free time, and she called STP’s 3.25 million-hour streak “pretty cool.”

“It’s a great thing to talk about, to keep people focused on safety,” she said.

From the 1970s to the 2000s, the state averaged 18 construction-worker deaths a year, she said. (A construction worker died Jan. 6 after falling from a scaffold near Seattle Center.)

There were no construction fatalities in 2013 in Washington, which Kime said has never happened before, in any state.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or On Twitter mikelindblom

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