Henley Street Bridge Construction, Knoxville, October 2012
It’s been a while since I posted photographs of the Henley Street Bridge construction, so I’m including a few that I took in a few weeks ago. According to a recent article in the News Sentinel, 72% of the allotted time for construction has passed while 55% of the work has been completed, which makes finishing by the deadline this coming June pretty unlikely.
Allotted time and deadlines seem to be at the root of some of the problems that have persisted throughout the project. Consider this: $1,000,000 vs $24,000. If you could spend the later to get the former, would you do it? Up to one million dollars was offered to Britton Bridge, LLC. if they finished by this month. Some suggest that the haste to finish the project is partially to blame for the two deaths on the bridge. The deaths resulted in fines of $17,000 and $7,000. Where is the incentive to slow down and do the job safely and properly?
We might hope that since the deaths of John Womac and Solin Estrada-Jiminez in 2011 the company had decided to make safety a priority. Evidence suggests otherwise. Prior to those deaths, Rene Mendez died in a Britton Construction project in Memphis in 2010 and this year Abimeal Contreras died on a Britton project in Marion County.
Now two workers, Carlos Guzman and Dwayne Sweat have stepped forward, walked off the job at the Henley Street Bridge and declared they are on strike until safety concerns are addressed. The company sent them termination papers and they filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board.
Primarily they want proper training for what they are expected to do and safe practices on the job site. Many of the issues relate to pressing to meet deadlines, so proper training isn’t offered as it would slow progress. Workers are allegedly sent onto wet surfaces so that work may proceed without waiting for the sun to dry the surfaces to provide more certain footing.
As a steady, cold rain fell, a press conference and rally was held Tuesday at 5:30 at Volunteer Landing, in sight of the bridge. Local media covered the event and you’ll find one report here. Bridges to Justice, an alliance of local religious and labor groups, sponsored the event. Mr. Sweat addressed the crowd and passionately accused the company of ignoring the safety of their workers. He later told me that he took the job because of the pay, but felt he could not risk his life. His wife works at a modest paying job, but he felt the loss of income was necessary.
We paid 24.7 million dollars to have the Henley Street Bridge repaired. It’s a lot of money. Compared to a contract of that magnitude, $24,000 is pocket change. We needed a new bridge, but at what price. With the best of practices someone might die doing dangerous work, but with sloppy practices a disaster is almost inevitable. Would we be willing to pay a little extra for the safety of the workers.
So far, two people have died for your new and improved bridge. Shouldn’t we do what we can to see that no one else has to suffer severe injury or death? If you would like to help, contact Jobs for Justice at 865-637-5247. Express your opinion to city officials and TDOT. The next time you hear someone bash “greedy unions” point out what happens when controls are removed from companies and millions of dollars are on the table.