Investigators will require months to determine the causes of two accidents that killed three union ironworkers on Feb. 8.

A Bad Day for Ironworkers In Chicago and New York
Photo: Courtesy of Goldberg, Weisman & Cairo Ltd.
Wrongful death lawsuit alleges that defective welds were a factor in fatal beam collapse.

The family of the Chicago ironworker, Kenneth Puplava, 43, has filed suit in Cook County Circuit Court, alleging contractor negligence in the collapse of a steel structure that struck him at a suburban hospital construction site. The suit names the project’s general contractor, Pepper Construction Co., Chicago, and its steel erector-fabricator, Lejeune Steel Co., Minneapolis, which employed Puplava.

Puplava was a 12-year member of ironworkers’ Local 1 in Chicago, says James J. Crowley, business agent.

Puplava was on the ground when he was crushed and sustained fatal injuries.

Crowley says the "structural integrity of connectors" was believed to be a factor in the collapse, but much about what happened is unclear.

In the Puplava family’s lawsuit, his wife, Susan, contends that site contractors at the Glenbrook Hospital expansion site in Glenview, Ill., did not take adequate safety measures for workers erecting and working under the structure’s steel canopy. The suit also contends that steel provided by Lejeune may have had defective welds that failed, and that snow buildup at the site impeded Puplava’s escape from the site as beams were collapsing, says Louis Cairo, Chicago-based attorney for the plaintiff.

Scott Allen, spokesman for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration in Chicago, says investigators have been at the site since the accident occurred. "OSHA has up to six months to complete an investigation, and in cases involving a fatality, investigations often require that amount of time," he says. "We may know more in a few months."

The Feb. 8 fatality follows by three months an accident at another Pepper Construction project that resulted in the death of a hospital housekeeping employee. The family of the employee, who was apparently pinned under collapsed drywall at a hospital renovation site in Libertyville, Ill., has also filed suit against the contractor and its sub, R.G. Construction Services.

"We are working with OSHA and the hospital to understand the details surrounding this incident," says Shannan Ghera, a Pepper vice president. "Pepper is committed to the safety of everyone who works for and with us. We're not able to comment further on this topic at this time." She also declined comment on the iron worker fatality lawsuit.

Mike Histon, a Lejeune vice president, also declined comment on the Feb. 8 accident, and the firm’s outside attorney did not return calls.

"While these tragic accidents are under investigation, we want to extend our sincere condolences and sympathy to the families of our brothers who have lost their lives," said ironworkers’ international union General President Walter Wise. "While our trade can be very dangerous, our union works closely with our contractors and members to make safety the highest priority."

The New York City accident at a Manhattan building renovation site killed Brett McEnroe, 49, and Roy E. Powell, 51. It occurred when a beam on which they were standing moved unexpectedly, says a spokesman for the New York City Dept. of Buildings. There is no official information about whether they were wearing safety harnesses.

Both were employed by Cross County Contracting, Pine Bush, N.Y., a subcontractor of F.J. Sciame, general contractor of the renovation project. McEnroe and Powell were members, respectively, of ironworkers’ locals 40 in Manhattan and 417 in Newburgh, N.Y.

"They were both very capable ironworkers who worked on major projects," says Bob Walsh, Local 40 business manager, noting that each had been a union member for more than 30 years.