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Fall affects none but worker who fell

(Ran North edition of PASCO TIMES)

Not even two hours after he arrived for his first day of work, Alphonso Escobar left in an ambulance.

Escobar fell down an empty elevator shaft, dropped three stories and landed in a concrete pit. The 22-foot fall at the Sunset Bay construction site left him with a fractured jaw and his right leg broken in three places.

According to the police report, the opening to the elevator shaft in the luxury townhouse was neither marked nor guarded, as required by federal safety laws.

But none of the federal, state or local agencies that have overlapping authority in workplace safety enforcement is conducting an investigation into the Feb. 3 accident.

And it is actually the fact that Escobar survived that allowed the incident to fall between the cracks.

From his room at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa, the 49-year-old drywall installer said in the week since his fall, he has already undergone three surgeries and is awaiting a fourth.

Escobar, who said he is a citizen of Mexico and a legal U.S. resident, is angry and worried.

With a wife and a 13-year-old daughter in Mante, Tamaulipas, Mexico, to support, Escobar said, he does not know how he will pay his medical bills or living expenses.

"I know the hospital is not going to do all this for free," he said. "Can you imagine all the time I will be without work?"

The promise of $100 a day for working at the luxury townhouses had lured Escobar and a friend from Tampa despite the torrential rain that day.

They arrived just after 7 a.m.

Escobar said the stormy weather and lack of electricity made it difficult to see as a construction manager walked him around the third floor of the boxy duplex, 1614 Kismet Court, Tarpon Springs.

He walked through an opening, expecting a closet.

Instead, there was just air.

"When there is a closet, there is a floor," Escobar said. "They didn't even have a sign or a 2-by-4 by the door - nothing.

"They are lucky I am the only one that fell down."

Tarpon Springs police Officer Barry Wireman, who arrived at 8:45 a.m., confirmed that the entrance to the elevator shaft was neither marked nor guarded.

"The entrance to the shaft was not covered with anything to prevent someone from walking into it; because of the inclement weather, the upstairs area was very dark . . . the opening to the shaft was very difficult to see," Wireman wrote in his report.

He found that while metal beams were blocking the shaft openings on the first and second floors, the one on the third level was missing.

The construction foreman told police he had personally installed all of the beams and did not know why the one on the third floor was removed.

"He stated that sometimes other crews performing certain jobs will remove the beams but that they are supposed to put them back," Wireman wrote.

Tarpon Springs building inspector Anthony Mastracchio told police he had personally inspected the elevator shaft the previous week, and each level had a beam. He even "braced himself against the beams" to test them, according to the police report.

Mastracchio did not return phone calls, but the building department provided copies of inspection logs. The records, which do not include a report of the findings, indicate department personnel had visited the townhouse twice earlier in the week.

When and why the beam was removed was unclear, but it was certainly gone the morning of Feb. 3.

The city did not plan to take any enforcement action regarding Escobar's injury.

Joseph A. DiPasqua, development services director for Tarpon Springs, said the missing beam does not constitute a building department violation.

"The permit holder - the general contractor - is responsible for everybody that he hired," DiPasqua said. "It's his job site. It's his responsibility . . . "

Federal safety law requires employers to guard any opening "where an employee can fall over or into greater than 6 feet," said Kevin Yarbrough, assistant area director for the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration's Tampa office.

But Cantel Homes, the general contractor, is unlikely to be cited by OSHA because the agency was not notified of the incident, Yarbrough said.

"If someone get hurts on the job, they can always pick up on the phone and call us with a complaint, and we will most likely initiate an investigation," he said.

Inspections also may be prompted through a referral from another law enforcement agency, but the Tarpon Springs Police Department, Fire Department and building office said they did not report Escobar's fall to OSHA, nor is it routine for them to do so.

Cantel Homes also was under no legal obligation to report the incident, Yarbrough said. Employers are required to report to OSHA only incidents that involve fatalities and catastrophes, when three or more workers are injured in a single event, he said.

But employers are required to notify their insurance carrier, said Michael Cleary, program manager for the Florida Workers' Compensation Joint Underwriting Association.

Cleary said the company provides insurance for Cantel Homes but that the contractor had not reported Escobar's injury.

"We would definitely take care of this claimant, but no claim has been filed," Cleary said.

He said it is possible that Escobar was employed by a subcontractor and covered by a different insurance carrier. However, police said the woman who took Escobar and his friend to the job site was a Cantel Homes employee.

Cantel Homes did not return phone calls. And the owner, Douglas W. Matthews, declined to discuss the incident at the construction site.

"I have no comment," he said Friday. "I can't tell you anything."

A Web site for Cantel Homes says the Christian company builds custom waterfront and estate homes such as those going up at Sunset Bay.

FALLING AT WORK

Nearly 1.26-million people were injured in workplace falls nationally in 2004.

Of those, 314,000 were out of work for more than a month.

More than 153,000 worked in construction.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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