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News :: Labor
Worker Deaths at MGM Mirage CityCenter Spur Safety Debate
10 Jun 2008
A growing number of construction-worker deaths on the Las Vegas Strip is prompting intense scrutiny of the iconic tourist destination's most ambitious current project: gambling titan MGM Mirage's $9.2 billion CityCenter.
Click on image for a larger version

CityCenter, set to open by the end of 2009, is a complex of high-rise condo towers, hotels, luxury retail and restaurants on the Strip. The project has been plagued by accidents; six workers have been killed since it broke ground in 2006, the most recent late last month, when 39-year-old Dustin Tarter died after he was caught in the machinery of a moving crane while oiling it.
The accidents have attracted the attention of regulators. This week, inspectors from both the federal and state divisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are conducting a comprehensive safety inspection of the site. That is in addition to Nevada OSHA investigations into two earlier deaths of workers at CityCenter. Neither OSHA releases information on continuing investigations.

Meanwhile, a union-affiliated, federally funded national organization, the Center for Construction Research and Training, will do its own safety assessment of the site and recommend improvements. Among the issues the group is expected to tackle is whether the pace of the project is too hurried, as some observers have suggested. Deaths from crane accidents at two construction sites in New York City also have captured national attention and fueled the debate.

Las Vegas is in the midst of a major growth spurt, with billions of dollars in ever-grander hotels, casinos, and condominiums rising from every corner of the Strip. Other gambling and hotel companies with their own projects will be watching closely to see whether MGM Mirage is required to make changes or take other steps that could result in delays to the way all Vegas projects can proceed.

Since 2006, 11 construction workers have been crushed under concrete, severed by heavy machinery, or plummeted to their deaths at a number of different work sites along the Las Vegas Strip alone, according to the Clark County Fire Department. Overall, the number of construction-worker deaths in Clark County, which includes the Strip, has risen to 17 thus far for the fiscal year ending June 30, from 12 in the year ended June 30, 2007, according to Nevada OSHA.

CityCenter -- the biggest project under way, with six hotel and condo towers rising at once -- has claimed the most lives and become a focal point for the outcry over the deaths. It has also become the stage for a tug of war between workers and developers over how much responsibility each side bears in deaths and accidents.

Timothy G. Galarnyk, a construction safety expert and chief executive of Construction Risk Management Inc. of Eau Claire, Wis., calls the six deaths at CityCenter "a staggering number" by any measure. He adds: "That is the kind of numbers we would see in Third World countries."

Last week after Mr. Tarter's death, 6,000 CityCenter workers struck, demanding more safety training. Workers returned to the job in less than a day, after the general contractor, Perini Building Co., agreed to offer safety training to all CityCenter laborers during paid shifts. MGM Mirage officials point out that the workers' demands didn't include slowing construction.

The attention comes at a critical time for MGM Mirage and Perini as they push to complete the project. If it isn't finished on time, MGM Mirage stands to lose a $100 million bonus fee from DubaiWorld, the investment arm of the Persian Gulf state which owns half of CityCenter. DubaiWorld deferred comment to MGM Mirage.

MGM Mirage and Perini officials say safety is a priority. "There's only one way to build a project and that's safely," CityCenter President and Chief Executive Bobby Baldwin said in a recent interview. Mr. Baldwin, who has an office on the site, said it isn't in MGM Mirage's or Perini's interest to overlook safety in a race to complete the job. When a serious death or accident has occurred at CityCenter, work has been suspended for investigation, Mr. Baldwin said, adding "There's a terrible loss of momentum."

Nevertheless, even officials at Perini seem startled by the number of accidents. "I've been with the company for 30 years and I don't ever recall this type of a series of incidents," says Doug Mure, Perini's vice president of human resources and risk management.

Perini is hard-pressed to point to a single reason for the number of fatalities. "They all have different causes," says Mr. Mure. "It wasn't due to all one cause or one type of accident. If we could point to a cause and effect, we would fix that."

In a statement last week, MGM Mirage underscored worker responsibility: "Workplace safety is the joint responsibility of the contractors, sub-contractors and unions; in practice, however, safety can only be assured by individuals."

Union officials have acknowledged that individual workers bear some responsibility. In one incident at CityCenter, a man working without an attached harness fell to his death. Union officials say the man should have harnessed himself. But, they say, the employer also should have provided safety netting to break his fall.

Some workers say an atmosphere of speed over safety has persisted, even after the deaths. Mistakes, they say, are more likely to happen if supervisors fail to enforce or encourage safety practices.

"I've never been on a job site with this many injuries or fatalities," says 39-year-old electrician Lionel Lopez of the massive construction zone where he works that envelops CityCenter and a neighboring project, Cosmopolitan. MGM Mirage doesn't own Cosmopolitan, which is in foreclosure, but Perini is the general contractor on both. Two workers have died on the Cosmopolitan project. "They say all the right things [about safety] when you hire on. But the supervisors say one thing and they do another," Mr. Lopez says.

The CityCenter site operates 24 hours a day, with nearly 7,000 workers coming and going in eight- to 10-hour shifts. Steelwork is done during the day; glass is hung at night. A county ordinance allows for 24-hour development. "Something we have to get to the bottom of is that 24/7 pressure and whether our ordinance allows too much. Are they moving too fast?" says Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani.

Union leaders and safety officials also note that CityCenter, with its dense collection of intricately designed towers meant to evoke the urban feel of a city block, is an unusually complex work site that represents a new phase for Las Vegas.

"As land prices have skyrocketed you've had to build more dense projects" than in the past, said Steve Redlinger, a spokesman for Southern Nevada Building & Construction Trades Council, a coalition of unions that negotiated the deal with Perini that resolved last week's walkout. "This is the reality of the future of Las Vegas. These are issues that we'd better tackle now."

A Memorial Site to Bring Awareness
to The Safety Issues at
MGM Mirage City Center Project
and all other Las Vegas Construction Sites has been set up by The International Union, Security, Police and Fire Professionals of America (SPFPA).

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