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Injuries on the rise for troubled Seattle tunnel project

SEATTLE (AP) - The four iron workers recently hurt when a wall of rebar gave way during construction of a tunnel under Seattle are among a growing number of workplace injuries the massive project has seen since 2012 - injuries that have resulted in almost $1 million in workers' compensation claims, according to state occupational safety figures.

Those hurt included a worker whose hand was crushed when he was changing the tunnel-boring machine's cutting tool, another who severely injured a knee in a fall and others who suffered chemical burns.

Some claims from the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project totaled several hundred dollars while others were for traumatic injuries that resulted in medical bills running tens of thousands of dollars, according to a spreadsheet of claims provided to The Associated Press by state regulators.

In fact, more workers were injured in 2014 than the two previous years combined, state safety figures show, though the contractor reported a lower total number of work hours than the previous year.

Seattle Tunnel Partners won the bid to design and build the downtown tunnel, and key to the $3.1 billion project is the giant boring device Bertha, which began drilling in July 2013 but broke down in December 2013.

Work has continued as crews tried to reach and repair Bertha, and the number of injuries has increased, an AP review found.

At least 117 workers injured at the project between 2012 and the end of 2014 resulted in an estimated $1 million worth of workers' compensation claims, according to data collected by the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health and released to the AP through a public records request. The agency did not have complete claim amounts for the end of 2014 so that total will increase. It also did not have data for 2015.

Dallas Delay of the Seattle/King County Building and Construction Trades Council said in an email that the tunnel contractor only started safety meetings with workers' groups in January 2014 and Seattle Tunnel Partners "does not have a culture of safety" and that the contractor looks "to discipline instead of fixing the hazards."

"We will not tolerate putting our members, nor any others on the project site, at risk," Delay said in a statement.

Seattle Tunnel Partners said in a statement: "Our safety program focuses on creating safe work conditions and eliminating unsafe work practices and at-risk work behaviors."

Laura Newborn, spokeswoman for the Washington State Department of Transportation, said the safety of the public, its employees and workers is its top priority.

But workers' compensation data shows injuries are on the rise.

Eleven workers filed claims for injuries in 2012 and 42 filed in 2013. Claims jumped to 63 in 2014, according to the state safety agency.

The state workers' compensation program had paid $733,265 in claims as of Jan. 1, 2015, and had estimated the claims would cost $964,920 once each one is completed, according to data provided by Elaine Fischer, an agency spokeswoman. The total will go up again when the newer claims are calculated, Fischer said.

Seattle Tunnel Partners listed 29 injuries when it filled out its 2013 OSHA form. That was lower than the 42 workers' compensation claims for 2013 because OSHA only requires the project to report injuries that were serious enough to cause the employee to take time off or move to a different position. The report said its 245 employees worked 681,117 hours that year.

Inspectors cited STP in 2013 and fined it $3,600 after a chemical burn injury. In August 2014, another worker suffered chemical burns and inspectors issued more citations and a fine of $7,500. The inspection report said one of the violations was a repeat of the violation they were cited for in 2013, but had not been corrected.

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