A couple of workers on the Henley Bridge rebuilding project in Knoxville claim to now be on strike due to concerns with safety, wages, and training.
Safety concerns came to the forefront in 2011 after two fatal accidents at the Henley Bridge construction site. In January 2011, 33-year-old John Womac of Athens died while working
near a track hoe. On May 24, 2011, a piece of falling debris struck and
killed Solin Estrada Jiminez.
Britton Bridge LLC was fined by the state and cited for safety violations in October 2011.
"They were stupid accidents. They didn't have to happen," said John Stewart with the volunteer advocacy group Bridges to Justice. "Britton Bridge signed a compliance agreement and the compliance agreement itself is quite good. The issue is they haven't lived up to it."
Stewart says two employees, Carlos Guzman and Dwayne Sweat, went to management to express concerns about safety and inadequate training.
"People are hired that do not know how to conduct certain jobs and they are put on those jobs. So that not only endangers the workers themselves but their fellow workers," said Stewart.
"I have worked in plenty of construction and there is always a rapid pace, but this was different," said Sweat. "There is a rush to get things done and they ignore safety. I started working about five months ago and did not even know people had died. In my time you saw things like a guy lose the tip of his finger, there was a ladder with a broken leg they just pieced back together with a 2x4, and all kinds of other stuff that made you feel like safety was not a priority."
Sweat said management at Britton Bridge LLC met with him and the discussion was not productive.
"I was called into the office and there were a few managers and me. It was basically them ganging up on me like some kind of interrogation. I was trying to tell them about things that were unsafe and they kept changing it to what could I be doing differently," said Sweat. "I wanted to meet with them again where I was not alone. I wanted to be with another worker [Guzman] who had the same concerns. That way they could not gang up on us and there could be somebody else to witness the conversation. They [Britton Bridge] would not do it."
Britton Bridge spokesman John Van Mol sent 10News a written statement that said, "In reality there is no 'strike.'"
"Two workers walked off their jobs claiming to be 'on strike' and claiming to have safety concerns. Those employees were invited to come back to work to discuss their claimed safety concerns and they refused," wrote Van Mol. "Afterward, they were terminated for not returning to work. It is obvious the Bridges to Justice group is trying to use these two former employees to advance its own agenda."
As for safety, Van Mol stated there is a safety engineer on the job full-time and there are daily work crew "huddles" where workers are urged to express safety concerns.
Stewart said the only agenda the group is pushing is a greater emphasis on safety.
"This is not right. We can't kill workers who are doing public work with public money. They do not have to give their lives for these things," said Stewart.
Regarding public money, Stewart also said the state can do a better job to ensure safety within its contracts.
"There are all kinds of incentives for speed. A contractor will get sizable bonuses for finishing a job early. But we want the state to put in the same kind of incentives for safety. Contractors would make safety a larger priority if there were incentives for completing a project without injuries or deaths," said Stewart. "Safety and speed are not mutually exclusive things. You can have both if people are dedicated to it."