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Originally published February 9, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 9, 2007 at 10:01 PM

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Tunnel contractor had safety issues last year, audit found

The report said the contractor had failed to establish a culture of safety at the site where a worker died this week.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The contractor digging Sound Transit's Beacon Hill tunnel, where a worker died this week, failed to establish a culture of safety on the jobsite last year, an audit found.

The contractor, Obayashi Corp., is performing the tunnel work where a small supply train hit a parked locomotive and derailed early Wednesday morning.

A mechanic, 49-year-old Michael Merryman, died of internal injuries when he was thrown from the train or jumped, outside the tunnel entrance.

The cause of that accident remains under investigation, said Joni Earl, the transit agency's chief executive officer.

But this was not the first such wreck at the tunnel .

Sound Transit launched the audit because of a previous incident on Oct. 27, when a supply train crashed due to brake failure and human error, said Earl.

Transit managers said Obayashi has improved its practices since the audit, and Sound Transit now conducts unannounced brake inspections.

A company spokesman said today: "Safety is the number one priority at all Obayashi worksites, and we're committed to improving on our exemplary safety record. We continue to work with Sound Transit and state investigators to determine the cause of Wednesday's tragic incident, and reiterate our sympathies to the family of the victim."

Back in October, the brakes failed on a train moving at "high speed," an Obayashi report said. Five workers, two of whom broke company rules by riding on a flatbed car, managed to jump off and avoid major injuries, Obayashi said. The report called for a pair of supervisors to serve three-day suspensions.

Sound Transit's audit, released today, further found that while the company has good safety procedures, Obayashi's Beacon Hill managers were not participating in safety meetings and inspections. Those duties were left to Obayashi's safety manager. Frequent employee turnover made it difficult to promote safety awareness, said the audit, completed last month by an independent consultant. . "There does not appear to be a consistent application of health and safety responsibility and accountability for project management from the Project Manager down to the Front Line Supervisors," it said.

Their participation is crucial because it sets the tone for the whole crew, to be safety-conscious at all times, said Ahmad Fazel, Sound Transit's light-rail director. "It just takes a moment for someone not to be paying attention, for something to go wrong," he said.

Last summer, an inspection by the state Department of Labor and Industries found zero violations.

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The accident site on the hill's western slope near Interstate 5, remains closed for investigation, said Earl. Obayashi has resumed work on a short aerial trackway east of the hill, and on an underground station.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com.

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