Construction Watch

Emerson Fire Highlights Safety Concerns at Denver Construction Sites

The fire at 1833 Emerson Street killed two people.
The fire at 1833 Emerson Street killed two people. Matthew Van Deventer
Spread out on a table are pictures of construction sites around Denver. Angel Esparza, a special representative with the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters, points to various details in the photos.

To the untrained eye, the messy piles of wooden planks, the pieces of wood dangling from upper floors, and the cables popping out of concrete floors look like the typical chaos of a construction site. But to Esparza, a carpenter with two decades of experience, they pose potential safety hazards for workers and passersby. That pile of planks and those cables are tripping hazards. The wooden planks hanging from the second story could impale someone walking on the sidewalk below.

As Denver tries to house, move and generally sustain its growing population, the industry in charge of building infrastructure lacks oversight, according to representatives of local construction industry unions. After a fire at a construction site at 1883 Emerson Street on March 6 killed two workers, union reps are calling for more stringent oversight of an industry that they say is stretched too thin and not regulated enough.

"There's not enough builders to build at the pace we're growing," says carpenter Mark Thompson, a representative of the Southwest Regional Council.

Construction employment in Colorado is expected to grow nearly 40 percent between 2015 and 2025, adding over 56,874 jobs, according to an industry economic impact study. But construction unemployment has increased since August 2017, from 5.1 percent to 7.3 percent this past January, more than double the state's unemployment rate. Wages haven't kept up with growth, and some contractors are cutting corners by paying less qualified workers under the table, Thompson says.

click to enlarge Construction sites around Denver frequently pose safety issues for construction workers. - COURTESY OF ANGEL ESPARZA
Construction sites around Denver frequently pose safety issues for construction workers.
Courtesy of Angel Esparza
Thompson was driving on Interstate 70 when he saw smoke near downtown on March 7. He started calling leaders of different construction crews who work with the SRCC to find out if there was a fire at a construction site. Sure enough, flames had engulfed a five-story apartment building, a Vertix Builders project that was supposed to be finished by July. The fire was so hot it could be felt from more than a football field away, and nearby cars melted.

Thompson and other unions reps rushed to the site. Although there were no unionized carpenters working on the job that day, Thompson says he still felt compelled to help. "This is my industry. These are my guys," he explains. There are some 13,410 carpenters in Colorado, and about 2,000 are members of the SRCC. There are about 7,100 carpenters in metro Denver alone, making carpentry the second-largest subset of the construction industry, behind electricians.

Thompson started dividing workers on the site by different skill sets — electricians, drywall installers, carpenters — to quickly establish whether any men were missing. He says he approached a foreman with United Builders Service, which was in charge of the drywall work, and asked how many men he had on the site that day. The man couldn't say. (United Builders Service did not return our phone calls.)

"[First responders] are trying to determine, hey, did everybody get out," Thompson recalls. "How can they determine that if they don't have a starting number?"

Two men died in the fire.

The deadly fire highlighted the safety issues that Thompson regularly sees at construction sites around Denver.  "Safety is expensive," he says, noting that many sites do not have evacuation plans, which are critical in the case of a fire.

Every worker should be accounted for at all times and should know what to do in the event of something catastrophic, Thompson says. Some sites are so safety-conscious that they even run mock fire drills that involve the fire department. But such a specific, time-consuming plan is rare, especially in a growing city where developers are itching to finish the next big apartment building ahead of schedule.

The City of Denver doesn't regulate safety on construction sites. Building inspectors visit sites when they are summoned by contractors to make sure that new drywall or electrical systems were installed properly.

Their job is to determine whether the work meets the code "so that when the building is finished and occupied, it will be safe," explains Andrea Burns, communications director with the Denver Department of Community Planning and Development. "We're not looking at the safety of the site or construction itself."

Most of the completed aspects of the project at 1833 Emerson had passed inspection according to Denver code, which is actually an international code shared by most cities, Burns says.

click to enlarge Firefighters extinguishing the blaze at 1833 Emerson. - MATTHEW VAN DEVENTER
Firefighters extinguishing the blaze at 1833 Emerson.
Matthew Van Deventer
Building inspectors could call off a project if they saw something egregious on the site that had the potential to harm workers. But Burns says that rarely happens, and Thompson says that in his thirty years as a carpenter, he has never seen a building inspector kill a project.

The last example of an inspector stopping work on a project was last June, after a scaffold collapsed at a construction site at Tennyson Street and West 44th Avenue. Though wood planks shot through the roof of the building next door, no one was injured; the building was being transformed into a brewery, and there were no employees or customers inside.

To get a permit to build, contractors must be licensed by the state. "There's that bar with permitting in Denver that assumes that if you have a license, you're qualified to do the work," Burns says. "And if you have a permit, you're qualified to do that work on that location."

A subcontractor, which works with contractors to oversee such things as drywall installation and plumbing, obtains permits for that work and must also be licensed by the state. "To the extent that they enlist sub-subcontractors, our assumption — and the burden is on the contractors — is that any company working on that site is licensed in Denver and therefore has the proper training and experience to do that job," Burns says.

"In the aftermath of the fire, and particularly when we learn what caused the fire, we're certainly open to re-examining our process and looking for ways to improve education and any checks and balances," she continues.

The agency charged with overseeing safety in the workplace resides at the federal level. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which has regional offices around the country, including one in Denver, lays out certain safety standards for construction sites. All must have a safety plan that includes emergency escape procedures, escape route assignments for employees, and a procedure to account for employees after an evacuation, among other things. Employers must review the plan with their employers.

Vertix Builders vice president Ted Laszlo says the project at Emerson had a "site-specific plan" for safety, but he won't go into details or comment on the company's general approach to safety at work sites, citing an ongoing police investigation into what caused the fire. "We have independent people viewing our safety plans to make sure we have additional levels of oversight," he notes.

As he points out safety issues in his photos, Esparza says he thinks about what the men on the top floor of the project at 1833 Emerson must have gone through. He hopes there were proper evacuation mechanisms in place that would have allowed workers to quickly scale down the building.

An OSHA investigation that will determine what caused the fire and examine the safety plan at the site won't be done for months. In the meantime, a vigil is being held at 7 p.m. today, March 16, near the site of the fire for the victims, Roberto Flores Prieto and Dustin Peterson.
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Ana Campbell has been Westword's managing editor since 2016. She has worked at magazines and newspapers around the country, picking up a few awards along the way for her writing and editing. She grew up in south Texas.
Contact: Ana Campbell