New Jersey construction company pays fine following fatal construction-barge capsizing

One man was killed when this hopper barge (foreground) capsized during bridge demolition work in the Manasquan River. The pushboat V-003 (left), a crane (center) and sister barge (right) also were involved in the project. (Courtesy U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration)

Federal officials have sanctioned a New Jersey construction company after an employee was killed in the capsizing of a pushboat and demolition barge in 2007.

George Harms Construction Co. was charged with failing to provide a safe work environment and failing to train its workers in vessel stability and capacity limitations. In a settlement, the company has paid a $3,500 fine.

James P. Lovely, 37, of Aberdeen, N.J., drowned April 18, 2007, when an overloaded hopper barge overturned on top of him in the Manasquan River, according to a report from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The George Harms crew was demolishing the old Route 70 bridge, near Point Pleasant, when the accident happened. The company had been catching debris in a 20-by-50-foot barge made out of three Flexifloat modular segments. Steel road plates were welded to the Flexifloats to create a hopper barge.

Harms was using its 26-foot pushboat, V-003, to attempt to move the loaded barge from alongside a pier. As the boat moved astern, its operator noticed the barge was hung up. When the barge came loose, it listed severely to starboard, according to an OSHA investigative report obtained by Professional Mariner through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Harms’ superintendent ordered the job stopped and phoned the Flexifloat manufacturer to ask if the demolition crew could add water to the barge for ballast to correct the list. The manufacturer instructed him not to do that, and the superintendent then hung up the phone, the OSHA report said.

The superintendent decided to use two large excavators up on the bridge to level the vessel out so the crew could add more concrete to the high side. One excavator pushed the high side down, and the other pulled the low side up. After more rubble was added, the barge had only 12 inches to 18 inches of freeboard left. Lovely then went into the hopper to unshackle a cable.

“The pushboat operator started to back up before the employee got back onto the pushboat,†the OSHA investigators wrote. “As soon as the operator put the boat in reverse, the barge listed to the starboard again due to being next to the pier. The barge then listed to port, then back level, started to starboard (and) then went to port quickly.â€

As the barge capsized to port, “the employee in the barge ran along the inside plate and jumped into the water and started to swim away, but was caught when the barge capsized and was killed,†the report said.

The towboat operator, who was in the top pilothouse, climbed onto the handrail and jumped into the river just as both vessels were capsizing. A skiff rescued him unharmed. V-003’s pilothouse glass and handrails were smashed when they struck the bottom of the channel, OSHA said.

The agency noted that the Harms crew didn’t bother to check with the Flexifloat manufacturer to determine whether it would be safe to add rubble while the two excavators steadied the vessel.

“The employees had no idea, due to lack of training, how unstable the barge had become,†the report said. The construction company’s owner and superintendent “stated that they did not calculate the capacity or the stability of the barge, nor was any training provided.â€

Ed Nyland, George Harms Construction’s director of business development, said the company would have no comment to Professional Mariner about the case. Harms officials reported to OSHA that they had used Flexifloat systems since 2000 and were experienced enough to predict hazards, but the company “can’t always calculate every move,†according to documents in the report.

“The employees were exposed to the hazard of an overloaded vessel that was unstable and prone to capsizing,†OSHA wrote. “An engineering assessment was not performed by the company as to what the capacity of the barge would be as well as its stability in its modified state even though they have an engineer on staff.â€

The OSHA report didn’t provide specifics to support its finding that the barge was overloaded. The agency said the crew should have paused to assess safety.

“The company could have let Flexifloat know what they were doing in order for them to assess the capacity and stability for them. … The employer could have just stopped to get a better understanding of how to stabilize the barge before attempting to move it again,†the report said.

George Harms Construction, based in Howell, N.J., was initially ordered to pay a proposed penalty of $7,000. The company ended up paying $3,500, the OSHA report said.

The company also promised to correct the problems for future projects.

“One feasible means of abatement is to consult with the manufacturer on stability and capacity limitations, and follow the Flexifloat Construction Systems design drawings and specifications for safe loading operations,†OSHA wrote.

OSHA’s report emphasizes that, when using modular barges, nobody should be inside the hopper while the vessel is underway. Manufacturer’s specifications should be followed at all times, and a minimum freeboard measurement should be provided to the people working with the barge.

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff