One year later, questions surround construction worker’s death on campus

Construction worker Michael Kerr, left, died exactly one year ago while working on Northwestern’s new Music and Communication Building after a crane knocked a beam from the sixth floor of the building.

Source: Jacquelyn Rowles

Construction worker Michael Kerr, left, died exactly one year ago while working on Northwestern’s new Music and Communication Building after a crane knocked a beam from the sixth floor of the building.

Patrick Svitek, Reporter

A year after a falling beam fatally hit an iron worker on campus, questions remain about what went wrong and how the accident could have been prevented as construction continues on the lakefront.

Michael Kerr, a 57-year-old veteran of Chicago-area construction, was killed May 16, 2013, after a crane knocked a 16-foot, 70-pound beam off the sixth floor of the new Music and Communication Building.

The fatal accident set off a months-long investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. In November of last year, OSHA cited the project’s general contractor, Power Construction, saying the company, which was then based in Schaumburg, Illinois, did not protect its subcontractor employees from falling objects.

Although an OSHA spokesman said Tuesday that Power Construction has met all its obligations related to the citation, a wrongful death lawsuit continues to bring attention to the accident. Lawyers are currently conducting depositions in the case, which was brought by Kerr’s son, who is also named Michael Kerr.

“We’re just looking for the truth,” said Louis Cairo, the younger Kerr’s attorney. “Just tell me what happened.”

A tragic accident

A police report obtained through the Freedom of Information Act suggests the beam was moved by the crane lines, which one detective observed were three feet away from the object’s original location shortly after the accident.

A witness working “in close proximity” to Kerr told a detective the two workers were receiving and unhooking a load lowered by the crane shortly before the accident, according to the police report.

Kerr was standing on the ground floor when the beam hit him in the chest and head. He was taken to Evanston Hospital, where he was pronounced dead less than two hours later.

Detectives wrote in the police report they were unable to find the crane operator for questioning. One detective said he was told the crane operator was too distraught to talk to police, while another detective wrote he was informed that the crane operator wanted to wait 24 hours to talk to authorities or the company, citing his union’s advice.

At the hospital, a detective said a representative of a safety group that works for Chicago Steel Construction, the Merillville, Indiana-based subcontractor that employed Kerr, told the detective it would be conducting its own investigation, according to the police report. It remains unclear whether the probe was completed and if so, what its findings were.

OSHA steps in

Hours after the accident, OSHA announced it would investigate the construction site. During a roughly six-month period, the agency inspected the location, interviewed employees and witnesses and reviewed Power Construction’s safety practices.

The OSHA citation, issued Nov. 14, faulted Power Construction for providing “no means of protection” from falling objects for Kerr and his co-workers. The agency classified the violation as “serious,” meaning the employer knew or should have known about a potentially life-threatening hazard.

OSHA asked Power Construction to pay a $7,000 fine, which it did 10 days before the Dec. 27 deadline, OHSA spokesman Scott Allen said. The general contractor also complied with OSHA’s recommendation to provide training to “prevent displacement” of the kinds of beams that killed Kerr.

In addition to Power Construction, OSHA put Chicago Steel Construction on alert. In a letter dated Nov. 13, the agency asked the company to make sure its employees are aware of safety practices related to swinging and moving loads. Allen said the letter was sent as an advisory notice, meaning Chicago Steel Construction is not required by law to respond to it or follow OSHA’s advice.

Construction officials did not provide further detail this week on how they responded to the issues raised by OSHA. Jeff Karp, CEO of Power Construction, said Wednesday he had no comment “relative to the accident from a year ago,” while Chicago Steel Construction did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Gregory Pestine, a Chicago-based expert in construction safety, explained most major contractors have plenty of incentives to put similar incidents behind them and maintain their safety record. For example, they can bid for jobs more competitively due to cheaper works compensation insurance, Pestine said.

Regardless, the pending litigation could end up costing Power Construction far more than the OSHA citation, Pestine said.

“The lawsuit,” he said, “is going to be what’s going to be huge.”

‘I just miss my brother’

The four-count lawsuit aims to hold Power Construction accountable for the accident, accusing it of neglecting safety practices, including failing to properly secure building materials and inspect the work environment. NU is not named in the lawsuit, which seeks at least $200,000 in damages.

Cairo said the legal process has not yet revealed any new information about the accident, but he expects that to change when Power Construction officials and the crane operator are deposed in the coming weeks.

“The wheels of justice are in motion,” Cairo said. “We’re doing what we need to do.”

Pestine said it is not uncommon for lawsuits like the one filed by the younger Kerr to last more than three years from the date of the incident. Millions of dollars can be at stake in such cases, especially considering lost wages and less tangible factors such as emotional distress, Pestine added.

Cairo has said Kerr’s death has been especially tough for his son, with whom he lived and last saw before heading to work on the morning of his death. On Tuesday, Cairo said Kerr’s family remains “very close” and supportive of each other as the one-year anniversary of his death approaches.

Jackie Rowles, Michael Kerr’s sister, said he has another sister and brother in Florida, and they may put on a memorial service to mark the occasion. For the most part, Rowles said she does not pay attention to developments in the lawsuit.

“I just miss my brother,” she said. “He’s gone, and there’s nothing that can change that.”

Clarification: The paraphrase of Gregory Pestine’s comments has been altered to clarify the intent of his statement.

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