Investigators will require months to determine the causes of accidents in two cities that killed three union ironworkers on Feb. 8. The family of the ironworker who died in suburban Chicago has filed a wrongful death suit, alleging contractor negligence in the collapse of a steel structure that struck him at a hospital project site. In the other accident, in New York

City, it is not clear whether two workers who fell 65 feet were wearing protective equipment.

The family of the Chicago ironworker, Kenneth Puplava, 43, has filed suit in Cook County Circuit Court, naming contractors at the Glenbrook hospital expansion project in Glenview, Ill. The project’s general contractor, Pepper Construction Co., Chicago, and its steel erector-fabricator, Lejeune Steel Co., Minneapolis, are listed. According to the subcontractor’s website, the project was a 250,000-sq-ft expansion valued at about $70 million.

Puplava was a 12-year member of ironworkers’ Local 1 in Chicago, says business agent James J. Crowley. He 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 neither safety investigators nor company officials are offering details.

The Puplava family lawsuit alleges that site contractors did not take adequate safety measures for workers erecting and working under the expansion structure’s steel canopy. It 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, the 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 an accident at another Pepper Construction project three months ago 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., also has filed suit against the contractor and its Chicago-based sub, R.G. Construction Services.

“We are working with OSHA and the hospital to understand the details surrounding this incident,” says Shannan Ghera, Pepper Construction 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 Puplava family lawsuit.

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

The New York City accident at a Manhattan church 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 workers were employed by Cross County Contracting, Pine Bush, N.Y., a subcontractor of F.J. Sciame, the project’s general contractor. McEnroe and Powell were members, respectively, of ironworkers’ Local 40 in Manhattan and Local 417 in Newburgh, N.Y. “They were both very capable ironworkers who worked on major projects,” says Bob Walsh, Local 40 business manager, who adds that each was a 30-year veteran.

“While our trade can be very dangerous, our union works closely with our contractors and members to make safety the highest priority,” says ironworkers’ international union General President Walter Wise.

This story has been updated at 11:25am on March 3, 2001.