Hearing scheduled on safety of tunnel workers

September 28, 1992|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

Inside Baltimore's highway tunnels, they can be lifesavers.

The state's 35 "tunnel emergency workers" are on standby 24 hours a day to tow disabled vehicles, put out fires and clean up any hazardous-materials spills.

But in helping save the lives and property of others, the workers may be at risk.

The Maryland Occupational Safety and Health (MOSH) program contends the tunnel workers are inadequately trained and ill-equipped to cope with the more dangerous aspects of their jobs in and around the Fort McHenry and Baltimore Harbor tunnels.

MOSH is pressing the Maryland Transportation Authority to make changes in how it responds to tunnel emergencies. A deadlock between the two state agencies has developed, and a public hearing has been scheduled before a hearing examiner today.

"They see us as no more than tow truck operators," said one disgruntled employee. "Their No. 1 concern is money."

The conflict began in February when MOSH issued two citations against the authority, the agency within the Maryland Department of Transportation that oversees operation of the two tunnels.

The citations were classified as "serious" safety code violations, meaning they could likely cause serious injury or death. The infractions would have carried fines of up to $7,000 each if they had been leveled against a private company instead of a state agency.

They included charges that the emergency workers fight fires without sufficient training, equipment that is properly inspected, breathing apparatus needed should the tunnels fill with smoke.

MOSH also found that the workers had been required to clean up hazardous materials including a "wide range of organic and inorganic chemicals," without training, equipment, medical supervision, or the benefit of protective clothing.

Gaston J. Sigur, an assistant attorney general with MOSH, declined to discuss specifics but confirmed that despite months of informal talks, the two state agencies remain at loggerheads over the issues raised by the citations. The case goes before a hearing examiner today.

The authority has denied any wrongdoing and claims the citations are a result of an erroneous interpretation of the job descriptions of tunnel workers.

"I don't think the press is the proper place to resolve the issues between us and MOSH," said John A. Agro Jr., the authority's executive secretary. "I'd just say that I think the job descriptions could have been better written."

But the workers who brought the complaints to MOSH in the first place claim the problem is not just a matter of paperwork. They say they can do the job as described, but only if the authority invests more money in their training and equipment.

"Somebody has to do these jobs," said one of the tunnel workers who asked not to be identified by name. "You can't just wait and watch a car burn to the ground waiting for the city fire department."

The position of tunnel emergency worker was created four years ago after a 1987 study suggested it as a cost-saving measure for the authority.

Since the Harbor Tunnel was opened in 1957, the authority had employed police officers to, among other things, tow stalled cars.

The study pointed out that policy was wasteful. Instead of paying a police officer's salary, it made more sense to hire a civilian. Toll Facilities Police officers currently earn up to $35,000, tunnel workers up to $26,000.

But from the beginning, workers claim, it was clear that their job entailed more than just towing cars.

The workers operate large, red wreckers that resemble tractor-trailer cabs with a towing rig on the back. They are equipped with 300 gallons of water and fire hose, fire extinguishers, a hand ax, pry bar, blanket and first aid kit.

They are given some training in firefighting -- although not as much as the average volunteer firefighter -- as well as training in first aid and a one-day course that teaches them how to recognize hazardous materials.

The authority's most recent job description says that tunnel emergency workers "fight fires and clean up any hazardous spills before traffic flow is restored." Their training includes "traffic flow and patterns, firefighting, first aid, [and] hazardous materials handling," the description states.

According to authority officials, that's misleading. Firefighting in the tunnel generally means putting out a fire that started in a car's engine, they point out. A hazardous materials spill is a rarity because trucks hauling hazardous materials are prohibited from the tunnels.

But records filed in the MOSH case show workers routinely clean up gas or diesel spills. Both are considered hazardous by state and federal standards. There were more than a dozen such spills between February and May of last year alone.

The records also point to numerous instances when workers have put out fires, including some along the highways and ramps leading to and from the tunnels.

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