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January 19, 2007

Michigan construction outlook, 2007 Generally, the trend is up in Michigan

24 Michigan Hardhats die on-the-job in 2006

Will OSHA get back on track?

Port Huron tunnel workers won't be forgotten

Trades focus on auto show

News Briefs

 

Michigan construction outlook, 2007 Generally, the trend is up in Michigan

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

Rocked and rolled by the fortunes of the low-riding automotive industry, the story of Michigan's woeful economic tale has been well-told in recent months.

Last year during our annual, informal economic roundup of construction activity around the state, we expected a barrage of bad news, but received word of surprising resilience in Michigan's construction industry. And surely this year, we expected that the lousy economic news in the state would migrate into construction.

In some areas it has, in most, it hasn't. Overall, we found that Michigan's construction industry, while still below the heydays of the late 1990s, is holding its own.

Here's what's happening:

Ann Arbor - It's a sign of the tough economic times in Michigan when the region that has been the state's most consistent construction employer over the last 15 years or so - Washtenaw County - hit a rough patch in the last quarter of 2006.

"Last year was good for the first three quarters, but things seemed to come to a screeching halt in the fall," said Greg Stephens, business manager of IBEW Local 252. "I think it was because a lot of school work wrapped up, but we lost a tremendous amount of work in the residential sector, too."

Stephens said Local 252 is experiencing 30-40 percent unemployment, which is unprecedented in recent years.

The University of Michigan has been the region's rock for the building trades - five major jobs alone at the university are creating $1.2 billion in construction activity. They include the new Mott Children's Hospital, work at the U-M football stadium, the Kellogg Eye Center, the North Quad and the new Business School.

In other areas, more than one million man-hours have been worked at the GM Willow Run plant. Pharmaceutical manufacturer Pfizer is a consistent employer. St. Joseph's Hospital in Ypsilanti has sponsored $100 million in new construction, including a yet-to-be-built new patient tower.

A new student union has been built at Eastern Michigan University, and a new wellness center is slated for Washtenaw Community College. Construction is ongoing to construct a new Ann Arbor High School. Toyota will be ramping up its $130 million technical center in York Township in 2007.

The slowdown in the region's construction momentum should start to turn around when warmer weather returns.

"I think we'll see a steady improvement once we get to springtime," Stephens said. "By then everybody should be back to work."

Bay City/ Saginaw/ Midland area - "A couple of times in 2006 we had everybody working, and it's been about a dozen years since we've seen that full employment," said Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 85 Business Manager Scott Garrison. "It sure beats the 50 percent unemployment we had a few years ago."

Work in the region includes projects at some "old reliables," including: expansion at the Hemlock Semiconductor plant, upgrades at the Dow Corning plant, new construction at Dow Chemical, and upgrades to the Consumers Energy Karn-Weadock plant.

Ethanol plant construction is growing like corn: Two more plants, in Ithaca and McBain (north of Cadillac), are both a go for '07.

The building trades have completed a new elementary school in Saginaw and worked on four other schools - and there will be as many projects in 2007. In upper education, Saginaw Valley State University will be getting new dorms in '07, and Central Michigan University will sponsor three projects.

Not unlike the rest of the state, health care projects are booming here, too. The

Bay Regional Medical Center is adding on 140,000 square-feet of space and 66,000 square-feet of renovated space, to the tune of $40 million. HealthSource Saginaw is undergoing a $35 million building replacement and improvement project. Gratiot County Hospital will be getting a four-story addition.

All told, Garrison said, "'06 was a good year and it looks to me like '07 is going to be even better."

Detroit/Southeast Michigan - Last month, the construction outlook for both Southeast Michigan and the entire State of Michigan was detailed at the Detroit Economic Club. It was laid out by Ron Hausmann, president of Walbridge-Aldinger's Heavy, Civil and Construction Engineering Group and 2007 chairman of the Michigan Association of Constructors.

We provided the highlights of his speech in an article last month that covered the entire state - now here's his forecast for Southeast Michigan (he included the Ann Arbor area).

"Bottom line for Southeast Michigan Construction as we move into 2007, is that we'll see about the same amount of construction spending, continuing to be less in residential, and more in many of the smaller non-residential construction markets," Hausmann said.

Big-ticket projects in the region include the new MGM, Greektown and Motor City casinos, the renovation of the Book-Cadillac Hotel, work at Beaumont Hospital in Troy, and the new North Terminal at Metro Airport.

Jobs that may start in 2007, Hausmann said, include work at the Detroit Medical Center heart hospital, Children's Hospital in Detroit, McClaren Hospital in Oakland County, the FBI facility in Detroit, modernization of I-94 in Detroit, and the Detroit Water and Sewage Dept. Oakwood Basin Program.

All-told, Hausmann said there are 17 known substantial projects approaching $3 billion. He said the construction industry in Michigan generated about $6 billion in revenue in 2006, about 3 percent less than in 2005 and "substantially" less than the peak in 2000.

About 45 percent of all the state's construction workers are in Southeast Michigan. The number of construction workers employed is down about 10.5 from 2000.

He said about 40 percent of SE Michigan's construction in 2006 was residential - down significantly from 2004 when residential exceeded 50 percent of the market. Housing construction is continuing to decline as a percentage of Michigan's overall construction industry.

"The overall residential downturn in our construction industry in SE Michigan dollars has largely been offset by steady gains in non-residential segments," Hausmann said, which is good news for union construction.

In various construction sectors he projected:

  • Offices: up 2% in 2006 and up another 4% in 2007
  • Retail: same in 2006 and up 6% in 2007
  • Medical, health : up 10 percent in 2006 and up 10% in 2007
  • Manufacturing: doubled in 2006 from 2005; same level in 2007
  • Education: same levels of spending overall 06 and 07
  • Highways: up 31% in 2006 and up another 12% in 2007

Flint - There weren't any large jobs to speak of around here in 2006, few mid-sized jobs, and a lot of small ones that did what they could to keep area trades employed.

"Last year held its own, but man-hours were down compared to '05," said Zane Walker, president of the Flint Area Building Trades and a business agent with Iron Workers Local 25.

Construction of the GM L-6 Engine Plant wound down in '06, taking away a nice baseline employer for the trades. Some of the slack is being picked up at hospitals and with school work. McLaren Hospitals in both Lapeer and Flint are putting on significant additions.

The Carman-Ainsworth School District, north of Flint, is sponsoring construction of new elementary schools and school additions. North Branch High School is getting a $25 million addition, and the district is getting a $25 million new elementary school.

Mott Community College has ongoing improvements worth about $10 million, and Baker College consistently has a small amount of work ongoing.

The best news the area has heard in a long time, Walker said, came on Jan. 10 with the announcement by E 85 Inc. of the planned construction of a $150 million ethanol plant in Corunna.

"I think, for us, '07 is going to be a lot like '06, with our people employed by a lot of small jobs," Walker said. "It's going to be slow, and we're going to have some of our people traveling for work."

Grand Rapids/Muskegon - There's a nice boom going on in the City of Grand Rapids, where the city reports that $513 million in ongoing construction activity, part of $1.1 billion in total work that's planned over the next few years.

There's more good news in nearby areas as well, as the building trades will be putting their skills to work in a wide variety of projects that should keep them busy in 2007.

"You take a look at what's going on, and we're definitely sitting a lot better than we were in '03, '04 or '05," said Bruce Hawley, business manager of Iron Workers Local 340 and president of the West Michigan Building Trades Council. "We had a pretty good '06, and this year is looking to be at least as good."

In Grand Rapids hundreds of Hardhats are toiling on "Hospital Hill," which includes work on the $190 million Devos Children's Hospital, the Spectrum Cancer Pavilion, a women's health center and a new phase of the Van Andel Institute. The $60 million Icon on Bond condo project is moving along, as is a new $100 million Marriott Hotel, a new museum, in addition to a new $60 million River House at Bridgewater Place condo development.

In other parts of western Michigan, more than 1,000 trades workers are toiling at Consumers Energy's J.H. Campbell plant.

Major water treatment plants are being built along Lake Michigan near the Campbell plant, and in Wyoming. Big new casinos are being erected in New Buffalo and Weyland.

While K-12 education work has slowed, major projects are in the works at Grand Valley State University and at Ferris State.

"It looks like we're going to be pretty active," Hawley said.

Kalamazoo/Battle Creek - The new year is starting slow, but it seems to be a lull between a good 2006 and probably a better 2007.

That was the appraisal of the Southwest Michigan Building Trades Council President Hugh Coward, who said construction workers should be putting their skills to work in a variety of sectors this year.

One of the biggest jobs going is the $160 million Four Winds Casino in New Buffalo. The 52-acre development include six restaurants, 124,000 square-feet of gaming space, and future phases are expected to include a 160-room hotel and special events center.

In Kalamazoo, the new eight-story Miller-Canfield building is under construction. Johnson Controls will provide some employment. So will Stryker.

School districts that have had construction include the recently completed Lakeview High School and Pennfield High, which will be completed this summer.
School district construction bond issue votes are slated in May for Battle Creek ($85 million), Marshall ($75 million) and Portage ($145 million).

Two projects at Western Michigan include dorm renovations Kohrman Hall and Brown Hall. A new $28 million Kalamazoo County Juvenile Facility will start this year.

The health care sector is well-covered, with work coming up at Calhoun County Medical Center in Battle Creek, another phase of construction at the Battle Creek Health System, and more employment at Bronson Hospital in Kalamazoo.

And, yet another ethanol plant is on its way, a $90 million project in Watervliet.

"All in all we're looking at a real good year for the Southwest Building Trades," Coward said.

Lansing area - Last year at this time, the $800 million GM Assembly Plant in Delta Township was in its final stages, school and hospital work was strong, and construction employment was pretty good in mid-Michigan.

"Unfortunately, '06 was a lot like the month of March: it came in like a lion and went out like a lamb," said Scott Clark, business manager of IBEW Local 665 and secretary of the Lansing Area Building Trades. "Things dropped off at the end of the year, and I don't really see them rebounding much in 2007."

Some of the good news in the region includes the ongoing construction of the $67 million, four-story West Wing expansion at Sparrow Hospital, and the $50 million expansion of Ingham Regional Medical Center. The HardTech Mason plant is expanding to the tune of $74 million, and construction of a new Michigan State Credit Union has started.

School work is usually a stalwart sector, but three major school projects have been completed in recent years, and the outlook in '07 is slim, so far. Spinoff work from the Delta Township plant also hasn't materialized.

Clark said he'd have a better handle on the coming year when bid packages go out in a month or two.

Mike Crawford, secretary-manager of the Lansing-based Michigan Chapter National Electrical Contractors Association, and area representative, acknowledged the slowdown, and said area trades and contractors are looking long-term at attracting new businesses.

"A common theme that has cropped up in mid-Michigan is support for the Prima Civitas group that was founded by David Hollister," he said. "There's a lot of excitement about the alliances formed with Michigan State University and the mid-Michigan Construction Alliance, and the focus that's being put on attracting new business and industry."

Hollister, the former Mayor of Lansing and director of the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth, founded Prima Civitas as a non-profit regional economic development organization.

The organization's goal is to "leverage the area's assets in higher education and K-12; auto and other manufacturing; agriculture; and emerging life science and information technology sectors to build a new economy." Grant money from the state's 21st Century Jobs Fund is being leveraged to attract new kinds of businesses - the multitude of state ethanol plants are one example as are other types of energy development.

Monroe - As they have for years, area Hardhats have looked to DTE Energy's Monroe Power Plant and the Fermi 2 Nuclear Power Plant as cornerstone employers in the area.

The two power plants continue to be major sponsors of work. In 2006, through 2007 and into 2008, the Washington Group, DTE Energy and the trades are installing new pollution controls at the coal-burning Monroe Power Plant, in a $700 million project that employed some 600 trades people at peak employment last summer.

Unfortunately, this year, there will be a lull in the project until scrubbers are installed in the fall.

Meanwhile, at Fermi 2, an 18-month refueling outage is also expected to begin in the fall, although there has been little information released so far, said Ron Sweat, business manager of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 671.

"We had a pretty decent year in 2006, with most of our members employed," Sweat said. "It slowed down before the holidays, and I don't see it picking up again until the fall. All in all it looks like a pretty slow year around here."

Sweat said area trades workers in '06 completed the Dundee Engine Plant, rebuilt a furnace at Spartan Steel in Frenchtown Township, put up an addition to Mac Steel in Monroe, and got spotty work at Plastech, where nonunion trades have been a problem.

The slower work picture in the Washtenaw area has had a domino effect in surrounding areas like Monroe, Sweat said, where up to 10 Local 671 members regularly have been employed. That's not the case now.

Traverse City/NW Michigan - Construction work has slowed down this winter, as it usually does, but prospects are good in 2007.

"Last year was a heckuva lot better than in '03, '04 or '05," said Jeff Bush, business manager of IBEW Local 498. "We had a real good summer and fall in 2006. We're looking pretty good into 2007, and maybe into 2008 if the work that's out there goes our way."

The major employer in the area continues to be the new $140 million Odawa casino in Petoskey. The trades are also working at the Little River Casino in Manistee, Merritt Energy in Kalkaska. Other projects that will provide employment in '07 include the Munson Medical Center in Traverse City, condos in Boyne City and a Charlevoix harbor project.

"We've done pretty well in light commercial, and residential work was also pretty good until the market dried up like it did everywhere," Bush said. "But overall this should be one of our better years if the projects I'm hearing about go union. If not, it could be pretty slim around here."

Upper Peninsula - "The year 2006 was pretty good for construction activity in the U.P.," said Tony Retaskie, executive director of the U.P. Construction Council. "In '07, we're looking forward to more opportunities for work and a better year."

Work on higher education campuses are expected to be major sources of work in the Upper Peninsula, with miscellaneous improvements at Michigan Tech, an ongoing expansion at Bay Community College, and the remodeling of a hall at Northern Michigan University. There are also various K-12 education renovations and additions throughout the U.P.

The trades are also working on the Hannahville Casino, a wastewater treatment project in Marquette, and a new $3.2 million DNR dock on Mackinac Island. There will be some work in the mines, including the prospect of the start of construction of the Kennecott nickel mine, which is expected to include an investment of $100 million. Paper mill work will also be available.

Retaskie said there are also "plenty of rumors" of big box retail coming to Iron Mountain, Escanaba and Marquette.

It's almost unheard-of that there would be no snow on the ground throughout many areas of the U.P. in the second week of January, but that's the case across the Midwestern and Eastern U.S. Retaskie said the warmer weather probably hasn't had much of an effect on the construction industry - with the exception of allowing Hardhats to work a little more comfortably.

"Maybe some projects have a little more going on, but we all know that there's a lot of winter to go this year," he said.

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24 Michigan Hardhats die on-the-job in 2006

There were 24 construction worker fatalities in Michigan in 2006 - an increase of one-third over the 16 Hardhats who died on the job in 2005.

The causes for the fatalities were led, as usual, by falls. There were eight in 2006, followed by five struck-bys, and cave-ins, electrocutions, and caught-bys (three each). Two died following explosions.

"Falls, electrocutions, struck-bys and caught-bys are usually at the top of the list for construction fatalities," said MIOSHA Construction Safety and Health Supervisor Tony Allam. "Those are areas that we constantly stress in our seminars and safety presentations before workers and employers."

The increase in fatalities from 2005 to 2006 was significant - but the 24 deaths last year were more in line with the average. In recent years in Michigan, the single-year high was 37 construction worker fatalities in 1997. Before 16 Hardhats died on the job in 2005, the most recent low fatality count for a single year was 17 in 1995.

In the 1960s, before MIOSHA was instituted, an average of 44 Michigan construction workers were killed on the job every year.

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Will OSHA get back on track?

OSHA, under the Bush Administration, has been sharply criticized by the labor movement and non-profit organizations such as Public Citizen for its failure to promulgate and enforce safety and health standards, particularly with regard to the construction industry.

After the fall mid-term elections produced a Democratic Congress for the first time in 12 years, these criticisms could translate into OSHA reform.

The publication of OSHA's rulemaking agenda in the Dec. 11 Federal Register confirms past criticism. For 2007, only one rule is slated for final action while only two others will reach the Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) stage. It should be noted that once a NPRM is published, public hearings are held, followed by legal briefs. A final rule is still normally two to three years off.

The NPRM for Employer Payment for Personal Protective Equipment was published in 1999 but has been stalled ever since. At issue is the obligation of employers to pay for the personal protective equipment (PPE) used by their employees. Claiming PPE is a "tool of the trade," some industry groups deny any employer obligation to pay for it.

Responding to this assertion when OSHA reopened the record for further comment in 2004, LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni said, "The Occupational Safety and Health Act was designed to require employers to provide workplaces free of recognized hazards. If OSHA now requires workers to pay for their own PPE, it is shifting the burden from employers to workers. This is the antithesis of the intention of the original regulation and will result in great inconsistencies in worker protection. This hurts contractors and workers alike."

In most union workplaces the question of who pays for what PPE is well-established by tradition or is spelled out in the contract. However, in the absence of direction from OSHA, nonunion employers assert whatever they wish, often leaving it to their workers to provide their own protection. Inevitably, this practice undermines overall safety on these work sites.

Now, two years after the record was reopened, OSHA apparently is nearing a decision. Final Action on the PPE rule is scheduled for May of this year.

Only three other construction-related rules are advancing this year, though final action on any of them is still years away.

After a long delay, the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to update the crane and derrick standard is expected in the fall. OSHA initiated review in 2002 after industry stakeholders asked the agency, in light of technological developments, to update the standard, specifically requesting that negotiated rulemaking be employed to facilitate the process.

A committee was established which met in an accelerated process and issued its consensus proposal in 2004. Unfortunately, it has taken OSHA three more years to ready its NPRM, which is now scheduled for October.
Similarly, a confined space standard in construction has been on OSHA's agenda since 1993 when the agency adopted a general industry standard that excluded construction. At that time, OSHA reached a settlement agreement with the United Steel Workers that required it to develop and issue a proposed rule for construction. Fourteen years later, that NPRM is now expected in February.

A proposed silica standard appears to be making slight headway, though when a NPRM might be issued is far from clear. OSHA acknowledges that the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for silica in construction - established in 1962 based on technology that has long been considered obsolete - is outdated but that substantial numbers of fatalities and disabling illness continue as a result of excessive exposure.

While non-regulatory efforts to address the problem were launched as early as 1997, the agency waited until 2003 to initiate rulemaking. That year, a draft rule was reviewed by the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement and Fairness Act (SBREFA) committee, and subsequently the agency initiated a peer review of its risk assessment. That assessment is now slated for completion in April, but OSHA has not indicated how or how fast it will move after that.

One rule that will not get consideration this year is the long-awaited Hearing Conservation Program for Construction Workers. OSHA mandated a comprehensive hearing conservation program for noise-exposed workers in general industry in 1983. Despite ample evidence that hearing loss is epidemic in construction, the agency waited until 2002 to issue an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. The comment period for that notice expired in 2002, and stakeholder meetings were convened in 2004. Nevertheless, the date of the agency's next action officially remains "undetermined."

Unfortunately, even the rules that OSHA has already adopted are poorly enforced. Part of the problem is an incoherent methodology.

Another part may be an insufficient number of inspectors. In recent years, OSHA's compliance budget has been set to ensure the same number of annual work site inspections as were made in 2003. However, the number of workplace fatalities and serious injuries continues to creep upward. Some commentators believe the U.S. does not have enough inspectors on the job. According to the International Labor Office (a part of the United Nations), an "industrial market" nation should have one inspector for every 10,000 workers. According to OSHA, however, state and federal inspectors in the U.S. number about 2,500, which is only one for every 70,000 workers.

A third problem in enforcement is a general lack of serious penalties, even for willful regulatory infractions that result in worker deaths. Under OSHA, such failures are treated as misdemeanors and are seldom prosecuted.
Hispanic Workforce.

The problems of health and safety in construction and other areas of the North American economy are compounded by accelerating changes in the ethnic composition of the workforce. More and more workers are of Hispanic backgrounds, immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American nations. The language barrier and widespread status issues (legal/illegal) make it easier for unscrupulous employers to take advantage these workers, particularly in the non-union sectors of the economy.

Over the last decade, the proportion of construction fatalities that are Hispanic has been steadily rising. Such aggregate data is amplified by sharp exposures of the problem, such as occurred this fall in New York City. Amid a building boom, the city witnessed a 61 percent increase in fatal construction incidents during the 12 month period that ended on September 30. Falls from suspended scaffolds were, by far, the largest portion of the deaths - 17 out of 29. Moreover, 21 of the deaths involved workers who were immigrants and 24 involved non-union companies.

While OSHA has acknowledged the problem of mounting Hispanic deaths and injuries, the agency has yet to find a way to address it. It has set up a Spanish language website and telephone hotline. According to OSHA Director Edwin G. Foulke, Jr., speaking to a reporter for the New York Times last November, the agency is "going to more pictorial-type information [that] will highlight what the hazard is and what is the proper way to avoid these hazards."

Congress could improve the lot of immigrant workers by enacting immigration reform that provides some kind of legal status and protection to immigrants so they can better risk standing up for safety on the job. However, it remains unclear whether Congress will tackle immigration reform in the coming session. Another option for Congress is adoption of improved protections for whistleblowers. Senator Ted Kennedy (D - MA) included such protections in a bill he submitted in the last Congress.

Whatever Congress may do to address the specific plight of immigrant workers, it can mitigate on-the-job dangers for all workers in the United States by spurring OSHA rulemaking and enforcement. Ultimately, protecting all workers is the agency's primary responsibility. As Sabitoni says, "It's time to get OSHA back on track protecting our members in the workplace."

(This article is from the Laborers Health and Safety Fund).

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Port Huron tunnel workers won't be forgotten

HURON - Michigan's worst construction accident took place at 3:11 p.m. Dec. 11, 1971, when 22 men were killed and nine injured in an explosion inside a Lake Huron water intake tunnel owned by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

A spark ignited an unseen cloud of methane gas, creating an explosion that caused a massive shock wave to travel the length of the tunnel. The blast inside the tunnel was compared to the barrel of a gun, and witnesses reported seeing debris - lunch boxes, clothing, hard hats - shoot 200 feet into the air.

It took 30 years to start an effort to erect a marker or memorial to commemorate the men who died in the explosion. It took another five years for that effort to come to fruition: This spring or early this summer, a monument will be complete in Fort Gratiot County Park, in an area that is located directly above the tunnel.

Debbie Comeau founded and chairs the group - the "1971 Water Tunnel Explosion Committee" - that led the drive to erect the monument. Debbie's husband, Randy, was nine when his father Raymond was killed in the explosion. She helped form the committee after the Port Huron Times Herald reminded its reading audience that no monument had ever been built to honor the Hardhats who were killed.

"People really came out of the woodwork when they heard what we were doing," Comeau said. "I have never done anything like this in my life, and after talking to other family members of those who died, it really tore my heart apart to hear their stories. This really became a passion."

The memorial will focus on a bronze statue of a typical tunnel construction worker of the time, with a light on his hard hat, a pick-axe in his hand, wearing work clothes and boots from that period. The statue will be surrounded by paver bricks formed in a circle with the names of well-wishes who paid to have their names inscribed on bricks, which offsets the cost of the monument.

The names of the men who died will be engraved on a granite marker at the site, which is on the Lake Huron Shore. Another marker will explain what happened in 1971.

Comeau said they are still accepting donations to offset the cost of the memorial. Checks can be made payable to: Community Foundation of St. Clair County - Tunnel Fund, 516 McMorran Blvd., Port Huron, MI 48060. Anyone wishing to have their name inscribed on a brick at the memorial can call her at (810) 982-4826 for details.

Here's an account of what happened on Dec. 11, 1971, according to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. Detroit's northernmost water intake was nearing completion, as vertical drilling operations inside a cofferdam on the lake were taking place on the lake, and crews were ready to tap into the horizontal water tunnel:

At about 11 a.m., 43 men descended into the tunnel, roughly 230 feet below the
surface. They took up positions within the last unlined mile at the shore end, where they continued finishing operations.

William Rounsville, who would survive the explosion, later recalled asking one of the supervisors, Vernard Woolstenhulme, if drilling would be taking place at the other end of the tunnel. "No," said Woolstenhulme. "They're going to drill tomorrow, and I don't want any of my men in the tunnel."

Woolstenhulme and his grandson, Gary Roehm, died in the explosion.

Meanwhile out at the cofferdam, refrigerating the bottom sediment had worked like a charm. Over the course of the last several days, crews had drilled through 30-feet of sediment into shale to within about eight feet of the
top of the tunnel. They would drill the remaining eight-feet today.

The men in the tunnel didn't know about the drilling that was planned. The men on the drilling platform thought the tunnel was empty. The drill bit bored through the remaining eight feet of shale without problem. The bit broke through the concrete roof of the tunnel, at which point the crew broke for lunch. It was now about 1:50 p.m. As the bit cut through the shale, it cut through, at least, one pocket of methane that vented into the big, empty, unventilated end of the tunnel. While the drilling crew ate lunch, gas collected. Following lunch, the crew tried to retrieve the bit, but encountered resistance.

They could always retrieve the bit later, and chose to activate a release mechanism and jettison it.

Around 3:11 p.m., the heavy, 23-inch drill bit was released from the shaft. It fell to the bottom of the tunnel where experts say it created a spark upon impact with the concrete. The spark, in turn, ignited the accumulated methane, and an unstoppable chain of events was put into play.

On the drilling platform, crew members felt a hot blast of air shoot from the hole accompanied by "a sound like a jet taking off," according to one of the drillers. A crewmember was knocked back into the water.

According to contemporary newspaper accounts, Russ Michaels, a Water Department inspector, immediately called (project engineer) Greenfield and Associates' site headquarters near the tunnel entrance to advise them of the explosion, adding, "It's a good thing no one was working down there."

An unidentified voice replied, "We had 41 men working down there - and we think they are buried." Those killed were more than four-and-one-half miles from the explosion's epicenter.

Of those in the tunnel, 22 made it out alive, seven of those were carried out on stretchers. The least injured, Francis Hamrick, suffered a broken arm, neck injuries, cuts and bruises. The actual 22nd victim, Keith Verner, died about 10 months after the explosion.

In the weeks and months that followed the explosion, 30 lawsuits were filed in Wayne County. Some were dismissed as frivolous. Many others were not. Eventually, $8.5 million - a record in 1976 - was awarded to several plaintiffs.

The families of the men who died in the tunnel, each received $750 from the State
of Michigan for funeral expenses. Widows received $79 a week for 10 years. Those
with children got $102.

The most significant development to come from out of this tragedy was a revamping of Michigan's occupational safety laws.

A RENDERING OF the memorial for Michigan's worst construction accident.

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Trades focus on auto show

DETROIT - Hundreds of construction workers re-made Cobo Center into the North American International Auto Show, which wraps up Sunday, Jan. 21

In 2007, The Detroit Auto Dealers Association will celebrate 100 years of sponsorship of the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS)/Detroit Auto Show. Since its inception in 1907, the show has grown from a regional event featuring 17 exhibitors to an internationally sanctioned show with over 90 exhibitors, adding nearly $600 million to the metro Detroit region last year alone. The NAIAS features more new vehicle debuts and garners more media coverage than any other automotive event in North America.

Reflecting the lousy economy for domestic auto manufacturers, Iron Workers Local 25 steward Mike Decker said "displays have been downsized, in some cases they've reduced the size of the displays." And employment for the building trades at Cobo Center has been reduced compared to recent years, also.

ADJUSTING A LIGHT in the Ford display at the North American International Auto Show is Tom Colegrove of IBEW Local 58 and Motor City Electric.

INSTALLING A NEW enclosure for doors at the entrance of Cobo Center are Scott Labrash and Tom Knotek of Glaziers and Glassworkers Local 357 and Christy Glass.


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News Briefs

Health care costs moderate
A study released this month, considered the most comprehensive look at the nation's health care spending, found that per-person health care spending rose by 6.9 percent in 2005. That's down from 7.2 percent in 2004 and is the lowest increase since 1999.
Published in the journal Health Affairs, the study said 2005 is the most recent information available. The report said it isn't clear whether the trend toward lower costs is temporary or long-term.

"Health care costs continued to grow faster than the underlying rate of inflation, faster t
han the rest of the economy and faster than the growth in average wages, said Jack Ebeler, a health care consultant, to the Wall Street Journal.

The study found that prescription drug costs rose 5.8 percent in 2005, compared to 8.2 percent in 2004 and a peak of 18.2 percent in 1999.

Ford to unleash $866 B in spending
Elsewhere in this paper, a forecast for the 2007 construction industry in Southeast Michigan mentioned 17 projects approaching $3 billion.

On Jan. 9, the Ford Motor Co. showed its value to Michigan Hardhats by announcing investments totaling $866 million in six Southeastern Michigan plants. With its announcement, the financially ailing automaker underscored its commitment to Michigan - which hopefully won't be lost on the state's vehicle buyers.

Ford said the investments in flexible manufacturing and advanced powertrain production will help the company grow its small-car lineup, produce more fuel-efficient transmissions, and fortify its worldwide truck leadership position.

"Our turnaround in North America and our return to profitability is based on strategic investment, not just cost cutting," said Mark Fields, president, The Americas, Ford Motor Company. "With this investment, we're expanding our commitment to small cars, producing fuel-efficient powertrains and fortifying our truck leadership."

These investments, which represent the first part of a $1 billion commitment from Ford, are supported by a Michigan Economic Development Corporation incentive package of $151 million. In addition, the state and local communities are considering additional property tax abatements.

"The state is pleased to partner with one of our major auto manufacturers to provide the leadership and creativity that will retain jobs in Michigan," Governor Jennifer M. Granholm said. "Ford's commitment to flexible manufacturing, designing and producing the vehicles that people want and solidifying their market leadership in truck manufacturing bodes well for Michigan's economy in the immediate future."

The investments are as follows:

  • Wayne Stamping and Assembly Plant received $130 million for tooling and equipment to build the all-new 2008 Ford Focus, which has been redesigned inside and out.
  • Van Dyke Transmission Plant received $320 million to install a flexible machining line to assemble a fuel-efficient, high performance 6-speed, front-wheel drive transmission for the next generation Ford Escape.
  • Livonia Transmission Plant received $88 million to install flexible tooling to increase its production of a fuel-efficient, high performance 6-speed, rear-wheel drive transmission for the 2009 Ford F-150.
  • Woodhaven Stamping Plant received $89 million for new dies and subassembly equipment to stamp parts for the 2009 Ford F-150.
  • Dearborn Stamping Plant received $31 million for new dies and subassembly equipment to stamp doors and hoods for the 2009 Ford F-150.
  • Dearborn Truck Plant received $208 million to install additional tooling and equipment to build the 2009 Ford F-150. Additionally, the investment will be used to convert Ford's historic Glass Plant on the Rouge site into a training center for the launch of the all-new pickup.

"With these investments and a focused and committed workforce, we stand ready to deliver the cars and trucks that people want," said Joseph Hinrichs, vice president, North America Manufacturing. "We're solidifying our manufacturing base and positioning ourselves for future growth."

Ford employs nearly 325,000 and has 110 plants worldwide.

 

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