The Virginia Dept. of Transportation suspended construction for five days on a $650-million project in Springfield after two job site deaths of construction workers in two weeks. VDOT halted work early on June 7 on the "Mixing Bowl" interchange project while it did a safety check. Construction resumed on June 13, said Steve Titunik a VDOT spokesman. He says it is the first such "stand-down" by VDOT in northern Virginia. A third death occurred on the project last October.

Virginia DOT

Larry Cloyed, VDOT assistant resident engineer in charge of the construction program, says that besides the three fatalities, "We had recorded a number of near-misses." He adds, "We were seeing what we felt was a disturbing trend."

The most recent fatality came June 5, when Caesar Rivera, a welder for Cress Welding Service, a subcontractor to Shirley Contracting Corp., Lorton, Va., fell about 100 ft from a overpass under construction. VDOT officials say Rivera was working near galvanized sheet metal pans that provide support for tying rebar on the bridge deck. The accident is under investigation, Cloyed says, but adds that it appears that Rivera had his harness clipped to a safety line and was moving on the deck when he fell. Cloyed says the "mystery" is whether Rivera's equipment failed or his harness was cut on the sharp sheet metal.

On May 23, Jose Portillo, a worker for Lane Construction Corp., died after falling 24 to 26 ft from scaffolding being erected for reconstruction of a Capital Beltway bridge over Norfolk Southern Corp. tracks., according to VDOT. Cloyed says workers were apparently in the process of building the scaffold, laying planks. He says that brackets were up for the steel cable tie line and Portillo had his harness on, but didn't appear to have made an attempt to attach himself to the tie line. He says it appears that Portillo either was struck by something or lost his balance.

In October 2001, Florencio Ferrell, a foremen with Shirley Contracting, died when he was hit by a bucket that was disconnected from a piece of construction equipment, according to Titunik and Cloyed. Cloyed says Ferrell and the equipment operator apparently lost sight of each other, the bucket shifted, and Ferrell was caught between the bucket and the ground and his skull was crushed.

The Virginia Dept. of Labor and Industry is investigating the fatal accidents, says Nancy Jakubec, a department spokesperson.

Cloyed says VDOT's safety review had three parts. First was a "static review" in which all equipment, mechanized and non-mechanized was checked. The second prong was a review of contractors' and subcontractors' written safety and training plans and implementation of those plans. The third prong is a "dynamic" review, he says, which will be ongoing as crews return to work. That involves checking all personal protective equipment such as harnesses and webbing. Cloyed says contractors have been "very cooperative."

Asked whether he was satisfied after the review, he says, "I'm satisfied that we needed to do this. And I'm satisfied that...we're on the right track toward heightening our awareness of these thinks that can build up and create problems. We want to be in a pro-active mode and a preventive mode."

Among other incidents was a fractured skull and "some paralysis" suffered by a worker in a "tripping hazard," says Cloyed. Among the "near misses," VDOT officials say, was a case in which steel casing was being lifted from a truck and rolled off. "By the sheer grace of God," says Cloyed, the casing's rolling was stopped from entering the Beltway by a small rock.

Michael Post, Shirley Contracting's president and CEO, said in a statement, "We all agree that it is prudent to review the project's safety procedures to ensure that all parties are doing everything they can to ensure the safety of employees and the public." He adds, "Since the beginning of the project, an extensive safety program has been in place that is constantly monitored and involves all personnel, including subcontractors which must participate in a comprehensive safety orientation before beginning work on the project. In addition to full-time safety managers dedicated to the project, numerous daily, weekly and monthly meetings are conducted to reinforce safety procedures."

Post said, "The safety program is aggressively enforced and employees can be terminated for safety infractions." He says, "Safety is everyone's highest priority, and Shirley Contracting will continue to work closely with VDOT and all project team members to diligently maintain the project's safety standards."

Robert Alger, president and CEO of Meriden, Conn.-based Lane could not be reached for comment on June 14.

The project involves major improvements to the chronically congested interchange where Interstates 95, 395 and 495 (the Beltway) meet. VDOT says it is the most dangerous spot for motorists on the Beltway, recording 179 accidents over two years. Project construction began in March 1999 and is to be complete in 2007.

In March, VDOT re-estimated the project cost, saying it would be $650 million to $700 million. That represents a 10% to 19% hike over the agency's November 2001 estimate.