SEATTLE — An amputated foot, a fractured hand and a fingertip crushed so badly it had to be surgically removed were among the injuries suffered by workers at the Seattle tunnel project last year - injuries that resulted in about $700,000 in workers’ compensation claims.
A review of worker safety records by The Associated Press shows the laborers, carpenters and engineers who remained on the job while the giant boring machine called Bertha was being fixed suffered sprained ankles, backs and elbows, scratched eyes and burned arms and feet. The contractor was cited and fined twice in 2015 for safety violations, records show.
Sixty of those injured workers filed workers’ comp claims — a rate almost as high as the 63 filed in 2014, but higher than the 42 in 2013 and 11 in 2012.
Since 2012, 185 workers have filed injury claims that are expected to top $2.5 million, with $1.3 million in medical costs, according to data from the Department of Labor and Industries, Division of Occupational Safety and Health.
Laura Newborn, spokeswoman for the Washington State Department of Transportation, said the tunnel contractor logged more than 1.2 million hours of work in 2015. She said most of the workers’ compensation claims were for injuries that did not result in time away from work.
“The safety of the traveling public, our employees, and the workers on construction sites is WSDOT’s top priority,” Newborn said in an email. “We continue to work with Seattle Tunnel Partners to ensure that safety remains the highest priority.”
She said since the project began in January of 2011 the safety incidence rate is below the average for the construction industry.
Bertha was designed to build a double-decker traffic tunnel to replace the earthquake-damaged Alaskan Way Viaduct, but it didn’t move an inch last year until the final days of 2015. It barely got going in January when the governor shut it down after a sinkhole appeared over the tunnel. Gov. Jay Inslee criticized the contractor, Seattle Tunnel Partners, and said he had “great concerns about public safety” if the project went forward without knowing why it happened.
The sinkhole and a tilting barge that dumped tunnel dirt into the bay and damaged a dock were not the only mishaps with the multi-billion dollar project.
The 2015 injury claims ranged from thousands of dollars for cuts and eye injuries, to tens of thousands of dollars for sprains and dislocations, the data shows.
The construction craft laborer who lost his foot after it was struck by a falling object had the highest claim to date: $515,525.
The fractured hand, a $25,000 claim, led to an investigation by the regulatory agency and ultimately three safety citations and a $21,000 fine, according to records.
The state inspector discovered the person who was supposed to oversee a 150-ton crane and rigging crew was inside the tunnel “and nowhere near the crane,” the citation said. The crane carried two flange beams that were strapped together “in a fashion that allowed them to be a trap for the signal person receiving the load,” the report said.
State inspectors returned to the project in November after a worker lost the tip of his finger in another accident.
In that case, a crane lowered a cage containing three men into the tunnel shaft and when they climbed out, one of the men put his hand in the “pinch point” of the door and closed it on his finger, according to the inspector’s report. The fingertip was crushed and had to be amputated. The worker returned to the job the next day on light-duty.
Inspectors went to the project site in June after receiving a complaint about welding fumes, according to another report.
The complaint said the site had inadequate respirator protection when workers were welding, cutting or grinding. That exposed other workers to particulate matter and fumes, the complaint said. The inspector visited the site and questioned the safety managers and workers and found no violations, the report said.
Seattle Tunnel Partners and a subcontractor were cited for two safety violations in April and both were fined $2,050 after four iron workers in the north portal fell on Feb. 12. State regulators said they failed to ensure that protruding rebar was protected to prevent a worker from getting impaled. The contractors have appealed the citation and violations and both are pending, according to Labor and Industries spokeswoman Elaine Fischer.