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Working In These Times

Thursday, Jun 6, 2013, 6:53 pm

BREAKING: OSHA Inspected Philly Building Collapse Site, But Did Not Shut It Down

BY Mike Elk

On June 5, 2013, rescue workers search for victims of a building that collapsed in Philadelphia. (Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images)  

Yesterday, a four-story building undergoing demolition in Philadelphia’s Center City district collapsed directly onto the Salvation Army store next door. According to Reuters, six people were killed. Already, questions are being raised about whether the building collapse was yet another workplace accident that could have been easily prevented.

So far, reports have focused on whether or not the City of Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) did its job by properly investigating a number of complaints from nearby workers and passersby about the safety of the construction site. In a press conference earlier today, Philadelphia Commissioner of Licenses and Inspections Carlton Williams said, “No subsequent inspection occurred to indicate there was any unsafe conditions. We did not follow up and we are definitely looking into that."

However, new evidence uncovered by Working In These Times shows that federal authorities may also have also played a role in enabling the accident. According to Pat Gillespie, the business manager for the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council, union workers employed at a construction site across the street from the collapsed building called OSHA on four different occasions to report problems at the site.“[The union workers] went and talked to the people on the job who were non-union and they were rebuffed,” explains Gillespie. “So then they called both OSHA and L&I and let them what they perceived to be a hazard."

OSHA tells Working In These Times that it did inspect the site last month, but did not shut it down.

Regional Director of Public Affairs at the Department of Labor Leni Uddyback-Fortson wrote in an email to Working In These Times:

I can confirm that OSHA has an open inspection involving Campbell Construction that was initiated on May 15 in response to an anonymous complaint alleging fall hazards.  Prior to that, the company does not have any OSHA history. OSHA is early in its investigation of yesterday’s incident and is still evaluating whether any additional subcontractors were involved. OSHA has no record of any calls beyond the anonymous complaint alleging the fall hazards that prompted the May 15 inspection.

Gillespie, however, feels sure that if OSHA had visited the site, they “would have stopped the job.”

"The workers there weren’t wearing any kind of protections," he says. "People have to know what they are doing when they are doing these kind of things. There were no precautions for the Salvation Army.”

When Working In These Times followed up with OSHA by phone to ask the results of the initial inspection, Uddyback-Fortson said, “It’s still an open inspection. It hasn't concluded. We do not comment on open inspections.”

However, Gillespie emphasizes that at the end of the day, the responsibility for any unsafe conditions is not OSHA’s, but that of the company owners--both the construction company doing the work, Griffin Campbell Construction, and the property owner who hired it, STB Investments of New York City.

“That guy should be put in jail, for Christ’s sake,” says Gillespie. “People are going to lose sight of who the villains are. People are going to look at the bureaucracy, and it's terrible, but [what] caused all of this is greed.”

Gillespie said that Central Salvage Company, a union construction firm, has negotiated for the job with STB Investments, but the company decided to go with the non-union Griffin Campbell Construction instead.

In a statement released early today to the media from STB Investments through its lawyer, F. Warren Jacoby of Cozen O’Connor, the company said, ”Our thoughts and prayers go out to the people affected by this tragic event. Please know that we are committed to working with the City of Philadelphia and other authorities to determine what happened today.”

Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times. He can be reached at mike@inthesetimes.com.

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