Honolulu rail workers once drilled through one of Hawaiian Electric Co.’s underground transmission lines, causing more than $50,000 in damage.

A worker fell from scaffolding erected along one of the project’s 23-foot columns because the crew failed to properly secure brackets. Luckily, the worker’s “retractable” safety gear stopped his fall.

While removing a bolt from a column platform, sparks caught an 8-foot by 8-foot section of grass on fire.

Several workers were doused with hydraulic fluid when a hose ruptured while a crew was digging a trench.


HART construction column Kapolei  June 2014

Honolulu rail construction near Kapolei.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

These are just a few of about 150 mishaps that have occurred during construction of Honolulu’s $5.2 billion rail project since work began in 2007. The reports and related documents were provided to Civil Beat by the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation through an open records request.

The reports reflect the complexity of Hawaii’s largest-ever public works project and suggest the challenges to come as the rail line moves toward Oahu’s congested urban core. HART contractors have erected more than 120 columns from Kapolei to Ewa and are beginning work in Waipahu. Meanwhile, more than 300 50-ton segments have been cast to form 25 guideway spans. The project has more than 1,200 workers on the job and that number is expected to climb to 4,000 in the coming years.

Despite the low worker injury record so far, the documents show a growing concern among HART officials about Kiewit Infrastructure West’s excavation procedures.

The reports include about three dozen driving accidents, ranging from minor vehicle scratches to more serious incidents, such as when a drill rig hit the Fort Weaver Overpass Bridge. They also include about two dozen accidents involving utilities and numerous cases of theft, an ongoing liability for rail contractors. Many of the reports reflect close calls, such as when an auger fell 8 feet, grazing the bicep of a drill operator because workers failed to properly attach equipment.

While there have been dozens of accidents related to the rail project, the reports indicate that there haven’t been any serious worker injuries. Injury rates for Kiewit Infrastructure West, the project’s major construction contractor, have also been well below national and state averages, according to HART statistics

Cave-Ins and Drug Tests

Despite the low worker injury record so far, the documents show a growing concern among HART officials about Kiewit Infrastructure West’s excavation procedures. Kiewit won the contracts to build the first two legs of the rail line running from Kapolei to Aloha Stadium.

Accidents related to excavation and falls are two of the leading causes of death and injury in the construction industry and Kiewit repeatedly failed to abide by safety procedures, according to HART correspondence sent to the company earlier this year. During the first three and a half months of the year, safety officials observed 109 potentially unsafe practices along Kiewit’s construction area — 22 percent of which were related to excavation activities. 

“To date, KIWC has responded to these observations with concern and corrective actions such as retraining, disciplinary action and communication to crews,” according to a May 2014 letter from HART project manager Karley Halsted to Lee Zink of Kiewit. “While HART recognizes these responses, we are concerned that despite these efforts, the trend continued.”

“Our project goal is zero safety incidents.” — Dan Grabauskas, HART CEO

The letter says that Kiewit had been dividing its safety management staff between its two guideway contracts, resulting in a lack of sufficient oversight.

Cave-ins are the most feared trenching hazard, according to information from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Excavation work also carries a risk of workers being asphyxiated due to lack of oxygen and electrocuted by underground utilities. 

UPDATE: In a statement to Civil Beat, Lance Wilhelm, senior vice president for Kiewit, said safety was of “utmost importance” to the company.

“We work with our crews on an on-going basis to ensure that any and all safety issues are addressed and corrected through training and follow up meetings,” he wrote.

HART CEO Dan Grabauskas said in a statement to Civil Beat that HART has addressed the issues with Kiewit.

HART has worked with the contractor to ensure any and all excavation safety issues identified early on are corrected through proper training to prevent incidents from re-occurring,” Grabauskas said by email, adding that crew has undergone retraining. “Our project goal is zero safety incidents.”

In addition to cracking down on excavation safety, the reports show workers involved in even minor accidents can be subject to serious scrutiny and are often administered drug tests.

In one incident, a mechanic backed into a pole, prompting a drug test and a three-day suspension without pay for “lack of attention to surroundings.”

In a similar incident, an engineer struck a “Stop Light Ahead” sign, damaging the truck’s side mirror and door. He was sent home for three days, ordered to complete a defensive driving course and training on “metal to metal prevention.”

A driver of a water truck struck another piece of machinery, damaging the water truck’s fender and lights. He was screened for drugs and fired. The HART report does not indicate whether his termination was due to the results of his drug test, which were not disclosed.

Theft From Work Areas

The reports also show that rail workers have to contend with a range of variables beyond their control, such as drunk drivers veering into their work area, roving reporters trespassing on site and contaminated soil. They also have to safeguard against theft. 

In June, a passenger jumped out of a vehicle in traffic and stole a generator out of a work trailer. And in 2011, thieves cut a hole in a 10-foot chain link fence and stole $20,000 worth of small tools and machinery out of four trailers. 

There have been about 16 theft incidents, according to the reports, and about eight failed attempts to abscond with construction materials. 

In one case, police let two thieves off easy, according to a HART report. Two men were loading steel plates from a work site into their truck when a rail worker and two cops drove up. After some discussion with the officers, the workers unloaded the plates from their truck. The suspected thieves had no “proof of vehicle ownership, insurance, any paperwork, or personal ID,” according to HART’s accident report. 

“I guess this is your lucky day,” one of the police officers said, before letting the two men leave without repercussion, according to the report. 

Correction: A previous version of this story reported that there were about 260 accidents along the rail line. While there have been some 260 incident reports filed with HART, a number of the filings are duplicative, according to HART. The total number of incidents is about 150.

About the Author