Caltrans, contractors fined in Willits bypass collapse

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State officials have levied a total of $165,000 in fines against Caltrans and two construction companies for the January collapse of a 150-foot section of the Highway 101 bypass project in Willits that seriously injured three workers.

The California Occupational Safety and Health Administration concluded that serious worker safety violations were committed by the agency and two contractors responsible for the controversial $275 million viaduct project, a 5.9-mile route being built around Willits to alleviate traffic congestion.

It’s the latest bit of bad news for a project has been plagued by frequent delays as a result of protests, lawsuits and run-ins with regulatory agencies.

The largest fine proposed by Cal-OSHA in the case was for $93,900 against Flatiron West of Benicia for one general violation and four serious violations. A related entity, the joint venture between Flatiron and DeSilva Gates Construction, of Dublin, was fined $49,500 for four serious violations.

Caltrans, which designed the bypass and was responsible for inspecting the elaborate forms that collapsed, known as falsework, was fined $21,600 for four serious violations.

Cal-OSHA report’s zeroed in on the design, assembly and inspection of the falsework as the root cause of the problem.

“(The) determination after several months of investigations was that the falsework was not property designed, was not erected as per the design plans, was missing components, (and) deficiencies were not identified when inspected and signed off on by the project engineer for the company erecting it,” the Cal-OSHA report found.

The watchdog agency determined that while concrete was being poured into the falsework, it failed at less than 50 percent of its design capacity, causing the jumble of wood, steel and concrete to fall 25 feet into Haehl Creek below on Jan. 22.

The citations pointed to insufficient structural safeguards — a “double sill arrangement that did not have a double cap restraint system installed” — as a cause of the collapse. It also cited three “potential initiators” of the collapse, including “improper cable tensions due to settlements” and “excessive joint take up” and “an eccentric load induced into the falsework.”

Cal-OSHA media officials said Monday that no one was available to explain those terms and determinations.

Two of the injured workers were on top of the structure when it collapsed and one was underneath, according to the Cal-OSHA citations.

The worker below, Phillip Lappe, 31, was most seriously injured. An environmental engineer responsible for monitoring the creek, Lappe suffered a crushed pelvis when pieces of the falsework fell on him. He was flown to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital.

Laborers Fermin Jaramillo, 52, and Jullian Lamas, 57, were on top of the structure when it gave way. Both suffered multiple fractures. Several other workers were taken to a local hospital and released.

In response to the report, Caltrans spokesman Phil Frisbie released a prepared statement.

“Safety remains Caltrans’ top priority and we will continue to work with Cal-OSHA and our contractors to ensure the safest workplace possible while we move forward on this critical project,” Caltrans spokeswoman Betsy Totten said.

Frisbie said he was not able to answer more detailed questions about the citations against the agency because the process is not yet complete. All parties have the opportunity to appeal the proposed fines within 15 days. Frisbie declined to say whether Caltrans intends to appeal.

Separate from the Cal-OSHA citation process, which is focused on the causes of accidents that affect workers, Caltrans is conducting its own exhaustive engineering review of what caused the collapse, Frisbie said.

The Cal-OSHA citations suggest that the stability of the footings may have had something to do with the collapse.

The citations for both construction companies and Caltrans stated that the agency and contractors failed to ensure that “all vertical supports were erected on a properly compacted and reasonably level and stable base.”

Other citations noted the parties failed to identify the “predictable hazards to employees” and appropriate safeguards on the job site; did not have a licensed civil engineer inspect the falsework “to ensure conformity with working drawings” and that the material and workmanship were satisfactory, and did not ensure the “shoring for the support of concrete … was designed erected, supported braced and maintained” to safely support the loads.

Immediately after the collapse, Frisbie sought to downplay the possibility that the footings were unstable, noting that they were inspected multiple times. He did so again Monday, noting that the pilings installed at the site were used to rebuild the falsework after the collapse and finish the construction of the elevated roadway.

He said he looked forward to the completion of the internal review by Caltrans so the precise cause of the collapse could be determined. He said the department’s review will be made public at the appropriate time.

Officials from Flatiron and DeSilva Gates did not return calls for comment Monday.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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