Sometimes, safety procedures in construction can feel like an added burden to our days. We breeze through checklists and audits in a daze and think numbly “this stuff could never happen to me”. When we speak with safety professionals in the field though, we hear the stories that open our eyes to the importance of safety measures in the field, and the last impact that just one incident can have on so many lives. In this interview with Conrad Banez, Project Safety Manager at Level 10 Construction, we explore the incident that cost one man his life, but changed another man’s perspective on safety and likely saved hundreds of other lives as a result. This is why safety matters.
Name: Conrad Banez
Occupation: Senior Project Safety Manager at Level 10 Construction
Years of Safety Experience: 8
Can you tell us a little about the incident that caused the shift in how you view safety on construction sites?
I was assigned to the largest barge on a retrofit project for the San Rafael/Richmond Bridge. As the deck engineer, I was responsible for the barge’s daily maintenance, service, and operation to support the ironworkers. On my barge was a 1,200 ton crawler crane and an Ironworker Raising Gang. On the day of the incident, I was welding at the stern of the barge.
"I heard a loud boom. When I looked towards the pier, there was a giant cloud of dust shooting out from the middle."- Conrad Banez
The raising gang foreman was on my barge pacing back and forth and pulling at his hair. A 7,000 pound jacking frame member free fell from 60 feet when the hoist operator wasn’t paying attention. The operator, meaning to lower the jack frame, instead pulled the brake lever, causing it to free fall. He tried to reapply the brake but the jack frame member had gathered too much momentum and couldn’t be stopped. The structural member penetrated through the dance floor (deck platform), into the water.
"The foreman told me that someone had fallen into the freezing water through the hole created by the jack frame member."- Conrad Banez
I immediately called for the project emergency services and the Coast Guard Search and Rescue. The man who had plunged into the water was assumed to have had his personal floatation device on. As the tide was ebbing at that time, we all waited in anticipation for him to float right into the row of rescue boats. After a couple of rescue boats reported to me that there was no sign of the man overboard, I immediately called for rescue divers. As we waited for them to arrive, I had several ironworkers in the water searching the pier walls around the protruding iron. They couldn’t stay in the water for long thanks to hypothermia kicking in almost immediately.
"I waited about a minute to see if the Search and Rescue boats swept up the worker before I asked permission from my boss to dive into the water after the worker"- Conrad Banez
I had a down line established where I thought the worker fell in the water. I free dove descending the down line to try to reach or feel for the worker. I only got down approximately 30 feet before I had to turn back around. On my second free dive attempt, I took a heavy shackle to weigh me down and was able to get to the bottom at 55 feet deep. I fanned my arms out, holding on to the down line with my left hand, and sweeping with my right.
"I finally found the worker, brought him in close to me then pulled up on the down line. I felt a sharp pain shoot from my lower back."- Conrad Banez
I lost a lot of air from the shock of that pain, and had to leave the worker in the water. I made it back to the surface and swam to the dive boat that had just arrived to let the diver know I’d found the worker 55 feet down. The diver plunged into the water to retrieve the man overboard but as we tried to pull him back up, his dive hose got caught on the barnacles of the pier. I jumped back into the water and positioned myself between the dive hose and the pier.The tenders pulled the diver and worker up as I allowed the hose chafe through my hands, leaving deep cuts on my palms. When the diver reached the surface, the workers face came within inches of mine.
"I was drenched in blood and salt water."- Conrad Banez
I swam back to the dive boat to help get the worker onto the deck. My boss jumped into the water to help me pull the worker onto the deck, the worker supported between me and my boss. Even with our combined pulling, we couldn’t lift the worker onto the deck.
"I suddenly felt a pop in my neck that made me see stars."- Conrad Banez
I screamed for help from the guys on the deck who helped get everyone out of the water and onto the deck, but two of us had to administer CPR to the worker who’d fallen in. The paramedics arrived soon after but one of them was pregnant and unable to get down onto the platform, which was 30 feet below the barge deck, so two of us continued to administer CPR on our own until we reached the beach. The worker was taken to the ER where he died 8 hours later.
What was your background before working as a deck engineer?
I was a sergeant in the US Army. My occupation in the army was US Army Arctic Paratrooper.
When I got out of the military I went to college and became a commercial diver. My dad was a US Navy Diver. I thought that to become a diver, you had to join the Navy. I found out I was wrong when I saw an ad to go to school to become a diver. When I got out of the Army, that’s what I became.
What do you think were the contributing factors to the incident?
- Untrained operator
- There was no communication between the ironworker welders on the outside of the pier
- The dance floor was not red flagged off with danger tape and signage to keep the ironworker welders from entering.
How did the incident impact you, both physically and professionally?
My boss told me to report my back and neck injuries to the project safety manager. It took me over a month to make contact with her. During my 4 weeks off to recover from my injuries, I tried unsuccessfully every day to reach the project safety manager. After weeks of failed contact attempts, I was finally able to get her on a phone call that lasted just seven minutes.
"The project safety manager informed me that because I was a veteran and chose to jump into the water after the injured worker, the company would not compensate me for my injuries I sustained from the rescue."- Conrad Banez
My boss told me to jump in after I asked for permission. I didn’t make a big deal about this because the military provides me with medical benefits for the rest of my life. Of course, not everyone has that advantage. After trying to ignore my pain for several months, I finally saw a specialist who took MRIs and found my condition to be so severe that it required surgery. When I told my boss, he simply presented me with my two checks. The company was letting me go. My boss encouraged me to get a lawyer, he didn’t want to believe that the company could get away with letting me go after such an incident.
I didn’t care to sue the company; I didn’t want to be looked upon as a malingerer taking advantage of the system. I dropped the whole issue and looked for work elsewhere. The problem was, I could no longer pass my diver physical, making me unfit for any of my previous positions. During my job search, I had several business agents from different unions call me up and advise me to speak to a lawyer.
"I didn’t want a lawyer. I just wanted to work and provide for my family so I chose to take care of my health issues on my own."- Conrad Banez
However, at the urging of several business agents from various unions, I finally called a lawyer. He told me all the laws that my employer broke after the incident. I was shocked and enraged. I sued my employer and won. Although I won, it was a grueling battle that required a lot of sacrifice from my family and me. I almost lost everything in my life. Winning my case afforded me the opportunity to go back to school and pursue occupational rehabilitation. I was able to go back to school and provide for my family. After 4 years of school and rehabilitation, I got my BS degree in management and recovered from my two fusions (1 lumbar and 1 cervical) and a damaged tympanic membrane with scarring in the middle ear due to an infection from sea water entering from a Forceful Valsalva.
How did you get into a project safety manager role?
When I graduated college, I tried applying for project manager positions but I graduated in 2008, a recession year. Without any experience, finding a project manager position was incredibly difficult. I got desperate and called my previous boss for a job as a rack operator. Because I still could not pass the diver physical, he could not hire me. When he suggested I get into safety management, I said “HELL NO!”
With the recession in full swing, beggars can’t be choosers so he convinced me to give it a shot. Within 5 minutes of submitting my resume, I got a call back. I was a safety coordinator within a month for a large steel erector and fabricator. My old superintendent encouraged me to take the safety coordinator role. He said that to have someone like me who experienced such a giant change thanks to safety (or lack thereof) I could make a huge difference for the workforce. He told me that I could prevent others from having to go through what I experienced.
"He said I could get employees to understand the importance of working safely."- Conrad Banez
What did you think of safety initiatives before the incident?
I actually reluctantly chose this new position in safety.
"Before I got into safety, I hated that role. I didn’t see the benefit of a safety professional."- Conrad Banez
I had no regard for safety professionals because the only type I was ever exposed to were those who acted like cops. It was hard for me to respect or appreciate someone who had no clue what I did as a deep sea diver or deck engineer. My first two years as a safety professional were very hard. I was away from home in another state, learning how to make a dangerous trade safe, at the same time trying to earn the respect of ironworkers. When I started seeing the culture within the company move to where safety wasn’t just something management talked about; I started to really see what my old boss talked about.
What would you say to others wanting to get into your type of role?
I would tell them that safety isn’t just about complying with regulatory standards. It goes beyond that. While in the Army, I was taught that the safest person on your team needs to be “you” because if “you” are safe, then “you” take care of the person standing next to you. While in the Army, I never lost anyone on any mission and we did crazier missions than any construction activity known to man. This ironworker was the first person to ever die in my arms. While at the funeral, I saw something I’ve only seen in the military. I saw a band of brothers type environment.
"Construction is known to be a cut throat, stab your buddy in the back so that you can climb the corporate ladder type of environment. That has to go away. If you can create that band of brother environment on the job site every day, you’ll see the safety work itself out in every facet of life."- Conrad Banez
Apprentices will learn the safe way/right way to perform. Journeyman will actually teach apprentices and one another the right way to perform. You’ll see workers correcting unsafe conditions without being told or without seeking attention.
Many construction professionals undervalue safety procedures because they believe a traumatic event could never happen on their site, or to them personally. They take a more reactive approach to safety and wait until a major incident occurs to change behaviors. In Conrad’s case, he now fully appreciates the importance of proactive safety processes, which makes him an ideal project safety manager. He didn’t start as an advocate for safety, he admits to seeing them as “cops” and felt they were out of touch with the demands of the site. He grew into an advocate after a transformative event in his career. The experience of losing a colleague imprinted on him the gravity of integrating safety practices into everyday life. It also led him to his current position at Level 10, where a focus on safety has led to 2.5 million man hours without a lost time injury. These are the moments that shape workers’ lives and the stories we remember as we prepare for our work on site each day.
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