Wacker deaths put construction on hold

Wacker deaths put construction on hold

October 13th, 2012 by Joan Garrett McClane in Local Regional News

Wacker site construction in Bradley County

Photo by WRCB-TV Channel 3 /Times Free Press.

Illustration by Laura McNutt /Times Free Press.

The Tennessee Department of Labor has sent investigators to the Wacker Chemical construction site in Charleston, Tenn., to piece together how two workers fell from scaffolding Wednesday night and died.

Construction on the $2 billion polysilicon plant was halted indefinitely after the deaths, said William Toth, director of corporate communications at Wacker.

Depending on what Wacker and the Department of Labor find, the 1,200 daily subcontract workers could returns days from now or months, he said.

"The suddenness of it sends a shock through an entire organization," he said Friday. "It is a very sad situation. We certainly mourn their loss. We want to take this (time) and realize the sadness of the event and move forward."

Hugo Mendoza, 45, of Buford, Ga., and Luis Ochoa, 31, of Hollywood, Fla., were employees of Baker Concrete Construction. Baker, which operates in several states, has been inspected 19 times in the last five years, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Agency website. Thirteen violations were found and three of them were serious, according to OSHA.

Baker officials did not respond to repeated attempts for comment.

Jeff Hentschel, spokesperson for the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Agency, said there are no violations on record for the company in Tennessee.

The Bradley County Sheriff's Office detective who responded to the fall and interviewed several witnesses determined it was an accident, sheriff's spokesperson Bob Gault said.

Wacker had recorded 900,000 safe worker hours at the Charleston site, according the company's webiste. The plant's first operational building was completed in March with no injuries, the site states.

Falls are the leading cause of constructions deaths, according to OSHA officials. In 2010, nationwide there were 264 fall fatalities out of 774 total fatalities in construction.

In Tennessee, on-the-job fatalities have been on the decline, according to TOSHA numbers. In 2001, 52 fatalities were reported. A decade later, 30 were reported in a single year.

Investigators have six months to complete their investigation of the Wacker incident, said Hentschel, and they will likely spend several weeks talking to witnesses, looking through safety logs and taking pictures.

TOSHA could have required for operations to be shut down if there was an imminent threat to workers, but that wasn't the cas, said Hentschel.

Wacker chose to put the work on hold, and Toth wouldn't say what the stop to construction would cost the German chemical giant.

The plant, scheduled to open in 2013, is expected to create 650 new jobs.