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Published: Tuesday, 8/3/2004

Affixing the blame

THE U.S. Occupational Health and Safety administration has blamed negligence of the contractor, Fru-Con, for the tragic bridge-construction accident that killed four and injured four earlier this year. Though this is just the first chapter in what is certain to be a long process of affixing responsibility, the OSHA report, if correct, paints a damning picture of the Maumee River crossing's primary contractor.

The Feb. 16 tragedy, which has substantially slowed work on the new, signature bridge over the Maumee, was the region's worst construction accident in decades, and it cries out for explanation and accountability. The project is the largest single construction job in Ohio history.

Fru-Con, the nation's fifth largest construction firm, has 15 days from last Friday to appeal. It has already challenged the more significant findings: that it had on Feb. 2, and again on Feb. 16, the date of the accident, failed to install the large bolts needed to secure two construction cranes according to manufacturer's instructions.

Fru-Con says it did what representatives of the crane's manufacturer, Paolo de Nicola, told it to do to anchor the heavy equipment. An Ohio Department of Transportation official confirms that PN staffers were on the site on several occasions when crane-launching preparations were made.

It isn't clear yet that the day of the crane collapse was one of those occasions. OSHA's failure so far to cite the crane manufacturer suggests it wasn't, but the agency is keeping details to itself until the response period has concluded.

In the meantime, Toledo police and the Lucas County Prosecutor's Office are investigating the incident to see if criminal charges are warranted. ODOT, perhaps wisely reluctant to formally assign blame, will be taking a fresh look in light of OSHA's findings, and investigations by the ironworkers and lawyers representing the estates of two of the accident victims continue to be works in progress.

It is also likely that Fru-Con's people are re-examining procedures for everything they do. They have been quick to correct past safety violations pointed out to them, though the accident and now OSHA's findings create a feeling of uncertainty.

Certainly if Fru-Con's laxness was of the "egregious" and "willful" nature OSHA describes, severe penalties will be appropriate. At the same time, if, as one ODOT official speculates, Fru-Con people may have misunderstood the proper method for securing the crane, its builder must share responsibility.

It's possible that the innovative engineering and sheer scale of the project warranted greater attention and perhaps a slower pace of construction. The project was a year ahead of schedule, which may have instilled a false sense of security and a need to keep pushing.

Sorting this awful accident out has to be trying to the families of the victims looking for justice and a restitution that can never make them whole.

But it has to be done, for their sake and the sake of the local ironworkers who have to go up there again and finish the job.


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