County Blasts Valley Med Contractor over Safety Issues

Santa Clara County has decided to wage an unusually public fight with one of its contractors.

On Tuesday, the county released footage of an explosion to highlight what it called life-threatening safety lapses by Turner Construction, the company hired to seismically retrofit Valley Medical Center.

The year-old cellphone video shows Turner subcontractors standing around a manhole cover, urging their coworker Joel Ferreira to come out.

“I wouldn’t want to be in that vault right now—you kidding me?” a worker says. “You couldn’t pay me enough to do that, Joel.”

“Jesus,” one exclaims while another shakes his head.

“You might want to step out of the vault until that thing settles in.”

“Yeah, Joel, maybe you should step out for a minute.”

Just as Ferreira climbs up the ladder, a steam explosion blasts him yards away. Colleagues rush to his side and call paramedics while steam swirls around them.

“The video of this catastrophic failure shows a clear breakdown in design safety and safety protocols on the jobsite by Turner Construction,” said Jeff Draper, the county Facilities and Fleet Department director. “It was only through the grace of God that the worker survived this accident.”

Last week, the county sent a notice of default to Turner, blaming the company for delays and inexcusable safety violations in the $300 million project. Construction, funded by a 2008 voter-approved bond measure, has fallen more than 430 days behind schedule.

“Safety is our top priority at any job site,” Draper said. “For almost a full year, we have asked Turner to provide a complete analysis of why the accident occurred and a thorough plan on how they can prove the steam system is safe for employees, patients and the public. No progress has been made on the project since the accident last year due to Turner failing to get the appropriate permits demonstrating that their design is safe.”

Turner Construction said the county has it twisted.

“As the nation’s largest builder of hospitals and healthcare facilities, we have never encountered a more frustrating situation than what we face at Valley Medical Center,” the company’s vice president, Michael O’Brien said in a statement to San Jose Inside. “County representatives managing this project lack hospital construction experience or the knowledge of California’s exacting standards for healthcare facilities.”

Turner spokesman Chris McFadden said the county is responsible for three years of delays and granted the company 1,117 days to address “county-caused problems.” The contractor has finished 90 percent of the project, he said.

Meanwhile, according to McFadden, the county has added $150 million in added costs by issuing 850 change orders, going through several management changes and repeatedly falling behind on coordinating architects, inspectors and state regulators.

County officials said Turner has obstructed requests for information, despite admitting faults in its design and acknowledging dangerous working conditions.

What the county characterized as a call for transparency, Turner called “repeated roadblocks.” The company cites records that show the county has submitted 7,500 requests for clarifications and design changes, 750 amended construction documents and more than 850 change orders. McFadden said Turner provides the county with 30 reports a month.

“The real sources of problems are within the county’s control,” O’Brien added. “It’s time for the county to stop the blame game and work positively with us so that we can deliver a quality project to the taxpayers.”

In the notice of default, the county’s Capital Programs manager Ken Rado said Turner’s failure to come clean about what design failures led to the Sept. 2, 2014, explosion constitute a breach of contract.

Larry Kamer, another Turner spokesman, said the county overstated the danger of that blast. Ferreira reported to work the next day, Kamer said, and worked on the project for another month without any issue from Cal-OSHA.

“That the county brought it up suddenly today is suspicious,” Kamer said. “It’s all part of an effort to divert attention from the real issue, which is mismanagement by the county.”

From the outset of the project in July 2009, the county fell six months behind by failing to obtain the permits to even break ground, according to Kamer. More missed deadlines on the county’s part lost several hundred more work days in the years that followed, he added.

Among the 1,500 projects Turner manages every year around the globe—including the nearby Levi’s Stadium—Kamer said he can’t name another client as adversarial and inattentive to deadlines as this county.

Kamer said the county met with Turner to talk about the project on Monday and Tuesday, making no mention that they would release the video in a press conference at the project site hours later.

“They ambushed us with this incident,” he said, “which, as they say, should not have happened. But why did they bring it up now, a year later, if they were so concerned about his safety?”

County Executive Jeff Smith fired back with a new statement late in the day Tuesday, noting that Turner was fired in 2009 by Sutter Health at it’s Sacramento General Hospital location for running behind schedule and over budget.

“
Turner’s insistence on deflecting its complete responsibility for the … life threatening catastrophic explosion captured in the video is emblematic of the nonchalant and lackadaisical oversight of this critical project,” Smith wrote. “Time and again the county has sought assurances that the hospital bed building and utility loop would be completed safely and on time. We have only been given empty promises.

”

Smith said the company’s work on the Levi’s Stadium distracted from the hospital project.

“Turner denies that the Levi’s Stadium buildout impacted our project and their spokesperson keeps repeating the mantra that Turner can build more than one building at a time,” Smith said. “Yet they can’t explain why our hospital bed building does not have a single bed ready for patients and is years from completion yet Levi’s is thriving with concerts, international soccer and football. It appears Turner chose football and concerts over patients.”

This story has been updated.

Jennifer Wadsworth is the news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Email tips to [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth. Or, click here to sign up for text updates about what she’s working on.

18 Comments

  1. This is a very confusing article. The job is at one point described as a retrofit, yet at another there is talk of “breaking ground” and of a new building with 168 beds. One thing is clear however—the County and Turner are playing the blame game, which will surely delay completion of the project even further. If the issues are not resolved soon, a lot of lawyers are likely to make a lot of money; much more than after the collapse of The Performing Arts Center back in the 1970’s.

    And there is another glaring lapse by Jenn (no surprise there). The “steam explosion” occurred a year ago. Without a doubt CALOSHA would have conducted a full investigation of this “steam explosion”, yet not a mention of any report by Jenn. At the very least her story should have had a sentence or two stating that she tried to contact CALOSHA for its results but was rebuffed, if that occurred. But, more than likely, it never occurred to Jenn to call or email CALOSHA for a copy of its report, or even a comment. How did she ever graduate from journalism school? Yet another article from Jenn which raises more questions than it answers. What a sloppy amateur.

    • Take a deep breath. The story’s developing and we’ll report as more information comes in.

      JK

      • So you’d rather be first with a half-baked story than wait until you have confirmed the facts?

        • What is half-baked? We got both sides of the story and will continue to follow up. And yes, we do have other stories we’re working on. If you’d rather be less informed no one is forcing you to read the article.

          JK

          • You better tighten up your story quick because Fox News Channel “Happening Now” show is going to run the video during the 10 am hour.

          • So, Josh, you got “both sides of the story” did you? The respective parties can be counted on to tell their version, painted to put them in the best light. “Ferreira reported to work the next day, Kamer [a Turner spokesperson] said, and worked on the project for another month without any issue from Cal-OSHA.” Apparently no-one at SJI followed up to ascertain if that statement is correct. Cal-OSHA may have a third side to the story, but no bells went off in SJI’s collective head about that angle? I stand by my characterization—half baked. Frank Zappa recorded a song in 1967 (Trouble Every Day) which in part decried the penchant for news media to favor being the first to release a story, before all assertions were confirmed and all salient facts were established, rather than to hold off get it all right before they went to press. Frank’s words remain true today.

          • Peter Melton, spokesman for the Department of Industrial Relations (which includes Cal/OSHA):

            “Cal/OSHA did not investigate because it was not a reportable incident. The worker did file a workers’ compensation claim after the incident, and his case is currently open.”

      • Josh,
        ‘Take a deep breath’ is often valuable advice for everyone. Having managed many projects, this seems like a complete FUBAR that merits a Grand Jury Investigation. At this point, it’s not clear to me if it should be civil or criminal. But it does merit intense scrutiny. Hope Metro will aggressively pursue it.

        Good to ask, ‘What are legitimate criticisms?”

        Is the story confusing? Yes, for me too. But also because it IS confusing, complex and unfolding.

        The $840M 2008 Measure A bond issue to fund the $300M VMC seismic retrofit seems to have overrun costs by 50% to an estimated $450M; schedule by 430 days, with county responsible for ” three years of delays and [SCC] granted the company 1,117 days to address “county-caused problems.” ”

        a. How far off is the *original* schedule? 430 days? 1,547 days? Something else? What is the expected latest completion date?

        b. “MEASURE A: “To prevent state mandated shutdown of one-half of Santa Clara Valley Medical Center’s beds; closure of SCVMC’s trauma, burn center; and, loss of disaster response, by rebuilding, and improving earthquake safety of the hospital, meeting state seismic laws, and help replace closed medical facilities in downtown San Jose, shall the County of Santa Clara issue $840 million in general obligation bonds with independent citizens’ oversight committee, annual audits, and no money for administrators’ salaries?”

        What has the “independent citizens oversight committee” been doing? What have their reports indicated? Did the canary in the coal mine die? Was ignored? Silenced by ‘mushroom management’ – fed manure and kept in the dark? How much were they paid and what liability do they have if negligent?

        c. Smith: “…[Turner] can’t explain why our hospital bed building does not have a single bed ready for patients and is years from completion.”

        Yet Turner says they been filing 30 reports a month. Presumably, these contracted reports are determined by the client. If the reports fail to provide sufficient detail, that mismanagement typically falls squarely on the client’s (SCC) shoulders for failing to promptly address concerns.

        Disputes often arise. It appears that SCC has taken over a year to file a notice of default, yet claim a litany of problems since the project commenced.

        Since the $840M bond issue has been so badly botched, what will be done to prevent a recurrence with proposed bond / tax hikes that VTA wants or other ones?

  2. Excellent point about CALOSHA. Surprising that neither SCC nor Tuner cited it to support their positions.

    Inspires little confidence in the County’s proposed Civic Center Redevelopment project too – which also seems to have veered off the announced deliverables schedule. As I recall, SCC only got a single response to the ‘expression of interest’ solicitation. Does SCC Facilities has a reputation problem among construction companies or developers?

  3. CalOSHA responds to accidents when:

    Imminent Danger is apparent
    Employee Complaints
    Employee Injury noted to the OSHA 300 Log (Hospitalization)
    Employee Death
    Scheduled Inspections
    Random Inspections (VERY rarely done)

    The writer stated that the employee was back to work the next day, and needed no treatment (no OSHA 300 log entry), and that there was no complaint filed (no employee complaint to follow up on). If CalOSHA does not know, then they cant respond. Based on the release of the video (1 year old), CalOSHA is COMPELLED to investigate.
    Turner Construction has no legal obligation to report the incident if there are no documented injuries or complaints (the law does not require them to, based on what we know), and why would they choose to have CalOSHA on site if they dont have to? Is it wrong? Probably. Is Turner obligated to report themselves? Most definitely not.

    • Thanks. But creates more questions of the what, when, why, and who variety:
      1. Does SCC *contract* (v. state law) require events such as those in the video be reported (to SCC or CalOSHA)? And if not, why not? In effect, is SCC jeopardizing worker safety by negligently failing to mandate such reporting?
      2. When did SCC know about the incident, what did they [not] do, and when?
      3. Which SCC employees, if any, are responsible for acting on reports?

  4. Turner Construction is a contractor. SCC has no jurisdiction as to how things get reported….that is State Law (or Federal Law, if there is no code for the State arm of OSHA). Different States have their own versions of OSHA (Oregon, for example), but some States use the Federal guidelines (Nevada, for example). Make no mistake, the Federal guidelines are a MINIMUM standard for safety.
    The only way Turner MIGHT have been accountable, is a violation of agreed safety requirements from SCC under their contract. But seeing as SCC is not in the Construction business, they probably just requested the Safety Plan and JSA/JHA from Turner.
    Any employee, contractor or passer-by can report a safety violation to CalOSHA at any time. An investigation will commence on that subject only. Interviews and paperwork investigation will soon follow.

    • “SCC has no jurisdiction as to how things get reported” – Not claiming that they do.

      However, SCC *could* employ contract language that mandates such reporting [to SCC, CalOSHA, etc.). SCC could contractually require a report for first aid were rendered if they so chose.

      Apple required (since rescinded due to bad publicity) that no ex-offenders be hired for the construction of their new campus. Likewise, SCC *could* require safety reporting beyond the legal minimum.

      Am not siding with anyone at this point, but like you, am suspicious of SCC: “7,500 requests for clarifications and design changes, 750 amended construction documents and more than 850 change orders.” Plus costs that mushroomed by at least 50%. For a seismic retrofit – not a Pentagon pork project.

      The timing leads me to wonder if there’s a 1 year statue of limitations as well.

  5. As painful as it might seem, I gotta side with Turner. Bureaucratic red tape and big-headed politicians dont seem to understand the business end of things. If the SCC hacks didnt insist on safety rules that THEY put to Turner, its not Turners fault if they follow their own policies. Its the Safety Managers and Construction Managers that let that guy own in the vault who should be dragged over the coals.
    Employee safety should NEVER be compromised.

  6. While you all bicker about the “half-baked” story, you’re missing the salient point… Better to speak about yet ANOTHER County department that is mismanaged. County representatives managing this project lack hospital construction experience or the knowledge of California’s exacting standards for healthcare facilities.” Yet more County executives and managers that are way out of their depth.

  7. Who is bickering? Someone asked a question, I tried to answer it. Maybe you should run for public office, bringing your vast expertise and experience to the huddled masses that we seem to be.