Santa Clara County has decided to wage an unusually public fight with one of its contractors.
On Tuesday, the county released footage of an explosion to highlight what it called life-threatening safety lapses by Turner Construction, the company hired to seismically retrofit Valley Medical Center.
The year-old cellphone video shows Turner subcontractors standing around a manhole cover, urging their coworker Joel Ferreira to come out.
“I wouldn’t want to be in that vault right now—you kidding me?” a worker says. “You couldn’t pay me enough to do that, Joel.”
“Jesus,” one exclaims while another shakes his head.
“You might want to step out of the vault until that thing settles in.”
“Yeah, Joel, maybe you should step out for a minute.”
Just as Ferreira climbs up the ladder, a steam explosion blasts him yards away. Colleagues rush to his side and call paramedics while steam swirls around them.
“The video of this catastrophic failure shows a clear breakdown in design safety and safety protocols on the jobsite by Turner Construction,” said Jeff Draper, the county Facilities and Fleet Department director. “It was only through the grace of God that the worker survived this accident.”
Last week, the county sent a notice of default to Turner, blaming the company for delays and inexcusable safety violations in the $300 million project. Construction, funded by a 2008 voter-approved bond measure, has fallen more than 430 days behind schedule.
“Safety is our top priority at any job site,” Draper said. “For almost a full year, we have asked Turner to provide a complete analysis of why the accident occurred and a thorough plan on how they can prove the steam system is safe for employees, patients and the public. No progress has been made on the project since the accident last year due to Turner failing to get the appropriate permits demonstrating that their design is safe.”
Turner Construction said the county has it twisted.
“As the nation’s largest builder of hospitals and healthcare facilities, we have never encountered a more frustrating situation than what we face at Valley Medical Center,” the company’s vice president, Michael O’Brien said in a statement to San Jose Inside. “County representatives managing this project lack hospital construction experience or the knowledge of California’s exacting standards for healthcare facilities.”
Turner spokesman Chris McFadden said the county is responsible for three years of delays and granted the company 1,117 days to address “county-caused problems.” The contractor has finished 90 percent of the project, he said.
Meanwhile, according to McFadden, the county has added $150 million in added costs by issuing 850 change orders, going through several management changes and repeatedly falling behind on coordinating architects, inspectors and state regulators.
County officials said Turner has obstructed requests for information, despite admitting faults in its design and acknowledging dangerous working conditions.
What the county characterized as a call for transparency, Turner called “repeated roadblocks.” The company cites records that show the county has submitted 7,500 requests for clarifications and design changes, 750 amended construction documents and more than 850 change orders. McFadden said Turner provides the county with 30 reports a month.
“The real sources of problems are within the county’s control,” O’Brien added. “It’s time for the county to stop the blame game and work positively with us so that we can deliver a quality project to the taxpayers.”
In the notice of default, the county's Capital Programs manager Ken Rado said Turner’s failure to come clean about what design failures led to the Sept. 2, 2014, explosion constitute a breach of contract.
Larry Kamer, another Turner spokesman, said the county overstated the danger of that blast. Ferreira reported to work the next day, Kamer said, and worked on the project for another month without any issue from Cal-OSHA.
"That the county brought it up suddenly today is suspicious," Kamer said. "It’s all part of an effort to divert attention from the real issue, which is mismanagement by the county."
From the outset of the project in July 2009, the county fell six months behind by failing to obtain the permits to even break ground, according to Kamer. More missed deadlines on the county's part lost several hundred more work days in the years that followed, he added.
Among the 1,500 projects Turner manages every year around the globe—including the nearby Levi's Stadium—Kamer said he can't name another client as adversarial and inattentive to deadlines as this county.
Kamer said the county met with Turner to talk about the project on Monday and Tuesday, making no mention that they would release the video in a press conference at the project site hours later.
"They ambushed us with this incident," he said, "which, as they say, should not have happened. But why did they bring it up now, a year later, if they were so concerned about his safety?"
County Executive Jeff Smith fired back with a new statement late in the day Tuesday, noting that Turner was fired in 2009 by Sutter Health at it's Sacramento General Hospital location for running behind schedule and over budget.
" Turner's insistence on deflecting its complete responsibility for the ... life threatening catastrophic explosion captured in the video is emblematic of the nonchalant and lackadaisical oversight of this critical project," Smith wrote. "Time and again the county has sought assurances that the hospital bed building and utility loop would be completed safely and on time. We have only been given empty promises. "
Smith said the company's work on the Levi's Stadium distracted from the hospital project.
"Turner denies that the Levi's Stadium buildout impacted our project and their spokesperson keeps repeating the mantra that Turner can build more than one building at a time," Smith said. "Yet they can’t explain why our hospital bed building does not have a single bed ready for patients and is years from completion yet Levi's is thriving with concerts, international soccer and football. It appears Turner chose football and concerts over patients."
This story has been updated.