The news of a fourth fatality on the I-4 Ultimate project in Orlando, Fla., is surely increasing the pressure on SGL Constructors, the Skanska-led joint venture contractor leading the $2.3-billion project. The Feb. 4 fatality occurred despite previous adjustments to the contractor’s safety plan after the first worker deaths in 2016.

James Mills, 59, a worker for SGL, died after not following instructions on the jobsite, according to eyewitness statements obtained by the Orange County Sheriff’s Dept. This marks at least the second time that a project fatality involved worker error.

Witnesses stated that at about 12:40 p.m., a crew was loading a 20-ft-long, 1,144-lb steel pipe onto a flatbed trailer when the accident happened. Roger Templar, 70, the front loader operator, said he was preparing to load the pipe towards the front of the trailer when he saw Mills standing on the trailer, towards the rear. Templar says he told Mills to get down from the trailer, and that he complied. Soon, though, Templar says Mills was back on the trailer, “with his hands on the pipe.”

Then, according to Templar: “The pipe started to roll and James stepped back in an attempt to move away from the pipe. However, when he did so he stepped into a hole on the dovetail of a trailer, which caused him to fall backwards off the side of the trailer. At this point the pipe rolled off of the loader, over the chocks, off the side of the trailer and onto James.”

At 1:06 p.m., Mills was pronounced dead at Florida Hospital South.

In response, SGL immediately suspended work on the entire 21-mile-long jobsite “until the completion of the review and evaluation of our safety protocols” and “inspection of our work sites.” Work recommenced on Feb. 11, following a review and evaluation of SGL's safety protocols, the contractor stated. 

"Through this review, we have validated our current policies and procedures," noted a statement issued by SGL. "We have focused on reinforcing and retraining our craft and management staff on operational and safety policies and procedures before work resumed. Providing a safe work environment for our workers is our utmost priority, and we will continue to reinforce a culture of safety and accountability."

SGL Constructors further noted that it paid workers during the work stoppage "at no additional cost to taxpayers or the Florida Dept. of Transportation."

Another notable safety incident occurred on Feb. 15, just four days after construction had restarted. According to SGL Constructors, "At approximately 10:30 a.m., three workers sustained minor injuries when the elevated platform they were working on fell approximately ten feet. They were transported to a nearby hospital for evaluation." The incident occurred at the Colonial Drive ramp onto eastbound I-4.

The most recent of the project's three previous fatalities occurred in March 2018 when Michael Tolman, 56, an ironworker with Shelby Erectors, died after being struck by reinforcing steel. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration and Shelby reached a settlement agreement for $11,640, according to the OSHA report.

The project’s first worker death, in early 2016, occurred when 34-year-old Marvin Franklin exited a portable restroom wearing earbuds and walked in front of a subcontractor truck that was backing up. Another occurred in late 2016 when Curtis Popkey, 59, ventured too close to a load being offloaded from a truck.

More Project Woes

This latest news of tragedy comes as SGL Constructors and the project’s concessionaire, I-4 Mobility Partners, face construction and financing challenges related to a claim from the contractor seeking a 245-day extension of the project’s completion date, along with an additional $100 million as a result of drilled shaft failures. That claim was first cited by Moody’s last June when it announced it was downgrading about $1.4 billion in project loans to negative.

FDOT is still reviewing that claim, with the agency and the contractor having waived the normal 120-day review period.

In explaining its credit downgrade, Moody’s noted the contractor’s earning of a high number of “noncompliance points” through the first five months of 2018.

At that time, the total reached 147, coming very close to the lenders’ agreement’s default threshold of 167. If that threshold was reached, Moody’s noted, it “would give lenders the ability to accelerate debt repayment, or the eventual ability to step in,” two scenarios the credit agency nevertheless deemed “highly unlikely.”

Neither SGL nor FDOT would respond to ENR’s questions regarding the number of noncompliance points earned in 2018. According to FDOT, the point system is not affected by safety issues.

Last October, in a preliminary announcement of its third-quarter results, Skanska reported $100 million in write-downs, citing the I-4 project as one of two problematic P3 contracts factoring into the move.

The I-4 Ultimate project, which revamps the full 21-mile-long stretch of Interstate 4 through Orlando, was originally scheduled for completion in 2021.