Manhole investigation may lead to changes in Durham

By Charlotte Huffman

Documents obtained by NBC-17 reveal the City of Durham's proposed changes to the city's bid process to better ensure the safety of employees working on public contracts.

NBC-17 filed a public records request and discovered the proposal inside a series of e-mail exchanges between city employees.

The discussion to change the city's procedure comes after two men suffocated inside a manhole earlier this year. Following the tragedy, NBC-17’s investigation found many local governments, including Durham, don’t consider a contractor’s safety records in the public bid process because the law does not require it.

“In light of the revelations following the recent tragic death of two construction workers on a City of Durham project I would like to review what options the city has in adding safety records and violations to bidding criteria…” wrote City Manager Tom Bonfield after NBC-17’s investigation first aired last July.

Earlier this month, Tom O’Connor, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, a network of non-profit worker safety advocates, called on local and state governments to change their competitive bid process now, saying the City of Durham should never have granted Triangle Grading and Paving a public work contract.

“If their safety record is not up to par then they shouldn't even be in the pool of eligible bidders. We should be choosing from among responsible bidders and the lowest bid among responsible bidders should get the project,” said O’Connor in early December.

O’Connor pointed to Triangle Grading and Paving as an example. The company employed two men who suffocated last spring inside a Durham manhole. NBC-17’s investigation revealed the company had more than 60 construction-related safety violations and more than $200,000 in fines including a previous worker fatality.

A team of Durham employees worked for months on the proposal and presented it to Bonfield earlier this month. The proposal has not officially been approved nor implemented and is subject to further changes.

The team recommended adding requirements to all construction bid requirements but questions currently included are as follows:

  • Has OSHA or any state department of labor with regulatory enforcement authority cited your company for any repeat violations?
  • Within the last two years, has your company received any citations classified by OSHA, or any state department of labor with regulatory enforcement authority, as being willful where your company operates?
  • Has your company experienced any work-related fatalities within the last five years?

The City would request the contractor divulge any incidents under investigation as well as the company’s Experience Modification Rate (EMR) and Days Away, Restrictions and Transfers rate (DART).

In late November, the North Carolina Department of Labor cited Triangle Grading and Paving for four alleged serious violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of North Carolina, with a total penalty of $16,000. The fine resulted from the state’s investigation into the June 2011 deaths.

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