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Frederick swinging bridge photo prompts safety concerns

Tuesday - 6/19/2012, 6:00am  ET

Potential safety violations in a project to restore Baker Park's swinging bridge have spurred city officials to look into "corrective action" and fueled discussion about whether private contractors should have played a greater role in the job.

Concerns about risky work practices surfaced in response to a photograph of the historic footbridge as restoration efforts neared completion. The photograph, published last week in The Frederick News-Post, depicted three workers with the city's Public Works Department doing touch-up painting as they stood on stepladders positioned in the middle of Carroll Creek. A wooden plank spanned a stretch of water beneath two of the ladders, and a couple of the workers appeared to be resting their weight on the board.

Saturday, in an email to a Frederick County commissioner, a Jefferson resident reported that the picture captured several breaches of U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations.

"I can only imagine the financial impact to the taxpayers if one of those workers had fallen and sustained a serious injury, or even worse death," wrote Walter Bailey, who identified himself as a retired federal safety and occupational health official.

Frederick Mayor Randy McClement said city officials are aware of the safety concerns generated by the picture and are taking steps to address them.

The snapshot documented an isolated moment in about 21Ú2 years of restoration work on the suspension bridge, which was built in 1885 and closed to the public more than four years ago for safety reasons. The painters in the picture were putting the finishing flourishes on the bridge in preparation for today's ribbon-cutting ceremony and the reopening of the foot crossing, McClement said.

Still, he said the city isn't dismissing the concerns.

"They shouldn't have done what they did," he said of the DPW employees in the picture. "I'm satisfied that we are taking the right steps to make sure we take corrective action if corrective action is necessary."

First, city officials will investigate the applicable safety regulations and compare them to workers' actions. Then they will try to pinpoint the reason for any disconnect between the two, he said.

For Frederick County Commissioner Kirby Delauter, who co- owns a construction company, the photo exemplified why the city should have contracted out more of the bridge work. Before seeing the picture, he had written a News-Post letter to the editor questioning the city's approach to the project.

Delauter was the recipient of Bailey's email and forwarded the message to his fellow commissioners.

"Look at this picture and tell me if a private company would ever do something this simple minded," he wrote, adding that city taxpayers would celebrate the reopening of the bridge "unaware of the huge bullet they just dodged."

The possible OSHA violations don't irk Delauter as much as the point they illustrate: He says public employees have more room to cut corners compared with private contractors. Whereas a business takes a hit for any project mishaps, a city employee doesn't shoulder the same personal risk, Delauter argued.

And while handling a project in-house might look cheaper at first glance, a simple cost comparison doesn't take into account things like the expense of benefits for public employees and maintaining equipment, Delauter said.

McClement pointed out that the city did lean on outside help for certain engineering and construction tasks in restoring the landmark.

Discounting the usefulness of the DPW based on one incident doesn't make sense, he said. Sometimes, it's cheaper or more effective to give a job to city employees, and other times, contractors should take the reins.

Whether a job is in the hands of public or private workers, liability is part of any city project, he added.

McClement said the city has estimates of cost savings realized by giving restoration work to DPW employees, but declined to release them Monday. He said the figures would be made available at today's ribbon-cutting.