In the days before a large fire closed Pittsburgh’s Liberty Bridge for 24 days in September, crews working on the $80-million bridge rehabilitation squelched two minor fires, according to Occupational Safety and Health Administration documents obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette under the Freedom of Information Act.
The Post-Gazette reported that minor fires on Aug. 30 and Sept. 1 ignited by hot slag from a metal-cutting operation falling from the bridge’s top deck onto tarps two decks below went unreported to the Pennsylvania Dept. of Transportation, “because they were quickly handled by employees at the site.”
After the first fire was extinguished with hoses, a Fay employee was assigned to fire watch on the lower deck, according to the Post-Gazette. But that employee was reassigned shortly before a Sept. 2 blaze damaged 30 ft of chord truss subject to substantial loads on the bridge that carries 55,000 vehicles per day. The Sept. 2 fire started when hot slag fell onto uncovered plastic ventilation pipe on the lower deck.
PennDOT spokesman Steve Cowan said, “The department wishes we had been aware of the small fires ahead of time.”
While OSHA spokeswoman Joanna Hawkins said that the organization had no comment on the two previous fires, a spokeswoman for contractor Joseph B. Fay, Katie Spear, said, “Individual OSHA interviews are a portion of an investigation and need to be taken in context with all the findings. The final determination was based on the entirety of information collected and verified by the compliance officer. The OSHA investigation is closed.
“The bridge was reopened and safe to traffic months ago and not one person was injured during the entire incident. Modifications have been made to procedures to assure no future situations occur.”
Permanent repairs to the bridge are expected to be completed this month, at which point the rehabilitation work will continue. Spear declined to say how much the final repairs to the bridge cost or how much Fay has paid in fines, saying "this is private information.” The Post-Gazette reported that OSHA cut Fay’s initial $11,224 fine to $7,500 “based on Fay’s cooperation and previously strong safety record.”
Cowan said PennDOT and Fay are still "in discussions" over $3 million in liquidated damages that were triggered by the bridge closure. Cowan also said PennDOT has “No further action planned at this time.”