Checkered past of contractor in SF Muni tunnel death raises ‘red flag’

Public records reviewed Wednesday revealed another case where the contractor under scrutiny after a steel beam fell and killed a worker in a San Francisco Muni tunnel faced fines for serious and willful safety violations.

Yet as the San Francisco Examiner reported Tuesday, the Oakland-based Shimmick Construction told transit officials last November it had not been cited for a “serious and willful violation” in the past decade when it filled out an application to work on the seismic retrofit of the Twin Peaks Tunnel.

The company’s record is in the spotlight after the death of 51-year-old Patrick Ricketts, a signal technician for Shimmick Construction who was pinned by a temporary steel beam that fell in the tunnel on Friday.

Shimmick Construction has been linked to nearly 50 workplace safety violations since 2008, including serious citations for an accident in 2016 in which a forklift driver was crushed in Southern California. The record raises questions as to whether the company followed safety regulations in the Twin Peaks Tunnel.

SEE RELATED: Contractor in SF Muni tunnel death had record of safety violations

News of the violations, first reported Tuesday in the Examiner and by NBC Bay Area, also prompted Supervisor Norman Yee on Wednesday to call for a hearing at the Board of Supervisors on whether the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency properly vetted Shimmick Construction.

“The fact that the media had to dig up the history for us begs the question of whether or not we as a city during the procurement process actually verify the information stated in the questionnaire,” said Jen Low, Yee’s aide.

Low was referring to the questionnaire in which transit officials asked Shimmick Construction and its partner, “In the past ten years, has the Potential Bidder (or if a joint venture partnership, has any member of the partnership) been cited for any serious and willful safety violations by Cal/OSHA?”

The companies checked a box for “no.”

“We want to make sure that we are asking the right question,” Low said.

Paul Rose, a spokesperson for the SFMTA, said the agency “relied upon the contractor to accurately disclose information about their operations.” Rose said the SFMTA acted “in accordance with the contract procurement process.”

The company’s history of violations is publically available online, but the SFMTA does not appear to have reviewed it.

“It’s not rocket science and the fact that we didn’t do that, that’s a red flag right there,” Low said.

John Gallagher, a spokesperson for Shimmick Construction, said in a statement, “Safety is core to everything we do and our response to the pre-qualification for the Twin Peaks Tunnel project is accurate.”

“That said, we do not take these matters lightly and ensure thorough investigation so they can be prevented in the future,” Gallagher said. “Our priority right now is supporting Mr. Rickett’s family and fellow employees during this difficult time.”

In August 2011, the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Shimmick Construction and its business partner $67,500 for a willful and serious violation during a construction project in Yorba Linda, Ca.

The companies had changed shoring plans designed to protect workers in a trench without prior approval from a civil engineer.

OSHA cites companies for willful violations when an employer knowingly fails to comply with a legal requirement or acts with indifference to employee safety.

An administrative law judge later affirmed the willful and serious violation upon appeal in May 2015. When the companies then asked the Cal/OSHA Appeals Board to reconsider the decision, the board declined in September 2015.

A month later, the companies asked a Sacramento Superior Court judge to order the appeals board to rehear the decision. The litigation is still ongoing and appears on the closed session agenda for the Cal/OSHA Appeals Board’s Thursday meeting.

In another case the Examiner reported Tuesday, Shimmick Construction and the same business partner, Obayashi Corporation, were cited for two willful and serious violations also in Yorba Linda in 2011.

In one of the willful violations, a foreman ordered employees to dig into the ground where a natural gas line was despite knowing that the gas line was there. Employees punctured the line in March 2011 and then again in April 2011.

The other violation was for not adequately protecting employees from cave-ins in a trench, according to the Cal/OSHA Appeals Board.

The board found that the foreman “knew that an unsafe condition existed and made no reasonable effort to eliminate the condition. Employer permitted employees to enter the trench on March 24, 2011, to paint the flanges. Therefore, Employer’s conduct is found to constitute a willful violation of the safety order.”

But in a summary table at the end of the board’s decision letter, both of the originally willful violations are listed as only serious.

Ricketts, the worker who died, left behind a wife in Williams, Ca. and two adult stepchildren. His stepson is also an employee for Shimmick Construction and was working at the other end of the tunnel when the beam fell.

The death is under investigation.

SEE RELATED: Technician killed by beam in Twin Peaks Tunnel was working with stepson

Workers were reportedly under pressure to finish the project on schedule.

The SFMTA plans to finish the project by Aug. 25. The death halted construction for a day while the San Francisco Police Department and Cal/OSHA investigated the scene.

“While completing the project on time remains a priority to minimize the disruption to community members and merchants, the safety and lives of our workers is paramount,” Yee, who represents the area on the Board of Supervisors, said in a statement. “I look forward to working with SFMTA and other City agencies to evaluate how we vet and select contractors for city projects.”

The hearing Yee called will not be scheduled until October.

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

This story has been updated to include comment from Shimmick Construction.

Michael Barba
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