By Kathryn Mykleseth, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
Oct. 25--Twenty-six-year-old James "Kimo" Failing was preparing to install solar panels at a McCully building on Sept. 23 when he fell to his death, a tragedy state officials say could have been avoided.
Failing was not using a complete safety system as required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said William Kunstman, spokesman for the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. Failing should have been using a personal fall arrest system -- a harness securely fastened to a taut rope connected to anchor points mounted to the roof, according to OSHA rules.
The rapid growth in rooftop solar in Hawaii in recent years has led to more workers being exposed to the danger of falls.
Of the top 10 solar contractors in Hawaii, five have had to pay fines relating to fall protection violations over the past five years.
"With solar there are so many brand-new companies and with new companies you get a lot of new, inexperienced kids up on the roofs -- inexperienced guys you see putting themselves in danger," said Enrique Subiono, training director for the United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers and Allied Workers Local 221.
The need to work fast is one reason workers break safety rules, Subiono said.
"There is a lot of pressure put on the work crew and the individual to get it done quickly," Subiono said. "You don't really see guys wearing those body harnesses because it is cumbersome to work with."
Failing's employer, Island Pacific Energy LLC, was fined $2,970 last year for five worker safety violations by the Hawaii Occupational Safety and Health Division, known as HIOSH. The violations included employees not being tethered to harnesses and not training employees to recognize fall hazards.
Island Pacific Energy President Joe Saturnia declined to comment for this story.
Most of the five solar companies that have been fined for fall protection violations say they have policies to prevent falls.
Alternate Energy Inc. was initially fined $5,280 in 2013 for violations related to fall protection. Later that year the company instituted a zero-tolerance policy for not tying off, said Aubrey Hawk, Alternate Energy spokeswoman.
In 2013, Hawaii Energy Connection was initially fined $4,400 for safety violations. Managing partner Chris DeBone said the company now conducts job-site inspections and offers employees OSHA training through a full-time safety officer.
"That experience taught us that just having a training program and telling employees what they need to do is not enough," DeBone said.
In 2013, REC Solar was initially fined $2,310 for safety violations with an emphasis on falls.
"We are proactive in our approach to addressing safety on our construction sites," said Jesse Elliott, senior director of safety and quality at REC Solar, in an email. "(We) encourage safety observations from employees to help catch potential hazards prior to them becoming incidents or violations."
In 2014, Haleakala Solar Inc. was initially fined $33,000. After the violations the company hired a new safety manager and implemented mandatory training for the workers.
In 2014, American Electric Co. was initially fined $3,900 for safety violations. Ray Hose, president of American Electric, said some employees were fired after the violations. "I have had to let go of some of our best guys because they haven't abided by the safety policies we have on the roof," Hose said. "It's unfortunate but you've got to do it."
Hose also said the company has a full-time safety consultant, does daily safety checks, trains employees and has a zero-tolerance policy when employees break safety rules.
"Training and retraining is key," Hose said.
The responsibility of making sure the safety rules are followed is with the employer, said Diantha Goo, Hawaii Occupational Safety and Health administrator.
"The employers are supposed to be taking care of their employees," Goo said. "Nobody should be dying at work. There are no accidents. There are only procedures that weren't followed."
Goo said the agency had a campaign in the spring that ran ads about what companies need to do to prevent falls -- rules that have been in place since the 1990s.
"They are not new," Goo said. "They have been around so long it's almost like seat belt laws in cars."
The key to preventing accidents is in the company's culture, said Keola Danner, lead electrician for RevoluSun, a Honolulu solar company.
"You need to work for a company that values your life," he said.
Before getting his job at RevoluSun, Danner said he fell from a one-story roof as he and his former employer prepared for a solar installation. Danner landed on his feet. He twisted his ankle.
"We were just measuring out a roof. It was a pre-installation. We just had a guy holding the tape measure and I was pulling it back and hit the ledge. It wasn't super serious but it could have been a lot worse."
Danner said using a personal fall arrest system adds costs to the project.
"It's expensive and that is why other companies don't do it," Danner said. "It is not cost-effective for us to be up there and harnessed up at all times. It slows down the pace of the work. You've got this thing on your back. You got his rope, your rope and that guy's rope all on the roof. It really slows down production quite a bit."
The solar industry is relatively new, but preventing falls among construction workers has been an issue for decades, if not centuries.
"This just isn't a solar industry issue but the solar industry needs to pay attention to this because the majority of their work is at heights," said Tracy L. Lawson, president of safety consulting firm Lawson & Associates Inc. "As a whole in construction this is a huge problem."
In 2014, 353 construction workers were killed nationwide on the job due to falls, a 16 percent jump in one year, according to data from the Center for Protection of Workers' Rights.
There were more fatal injuries in construction than any other industry in the United States in 2014. Nearly 20 percent of the nation's 4,679 work-related deaths that year were in the construction industry, with falls being the leading cause of work-related fatalities.
In 2015, violations in fall protection have resulted in more than $100,000 in combined fines for two construction companies on Oahu.
Certified Construction Inc., a roofing contractor in Pearl City, was fined $46,800 by OSHA for violations related to fall protection this year. International Roofing & Building Construction Inc., a roofing contractor in Honolulu, was fined $61,600 for violations mostly related to fall protection and fall protection training. The two companies did not return phone calls seeking comment.
The industry is relying on education as the key to get workers to follow state and federal guidelines.
Local 221 requires workers to get safety training every two years. But unlike the roofers, solar companies are not part of a union and it is up to the employer to prepare staff.
Danner said his crew of installers and electricians has weekly safety meetings, safety briefings and daily reminders.
"You kind of make it part of the culture. It becomes something natural," Danner said. "There is no reason to be risking your life in this industry."
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