New U. Iowa Utilities Contractor Fined After Worker's Fall

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A contractor that recently took over management of the University of Iowa utility system has been cited for safety violations after a worker fell into an underground steam tunnel and was injured, newly released records show.

The Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Engie North America for five violations in connection with the March 25 incident in which a steamfitter fell 20 feet (6.1 meters) from a ladder down a maintenance hatch.

Engie paid a $16,000 penalty as part of a settlement reached last month, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press through an open records request. Under the deal, the agency dismissed two of the violations and downgraded the severity of others.

Engie took over the university’s utilities operations, running plants that provide energy, steam and water to campus buildings, under a landmark $1.2 billion privatization agreement that began last year.

The injured employee and more than 120 university utilities workers accepted jobs with Engie, which will receive escalating payments from the university for providing service for the next 50 years. The university received a cash windfall upfront that it has invested an endowment for education and research programs.

The incident occurred underneath the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City. The employee was going down a fixed metal ladder to get to the lower level of a steam tunnel when he slipped and fell, plunging through the hatch and striking the floor.

The 30-year-old suffered dislocated and fractured foot bones and was later hospitalized, state records show.

The employee has since returned to work, said Engie spokesman Michael Clingan.

The Iowa City Fire Department said emergency responders were on the scene within minutes, treating the worker roughly 30 feet (9.1 meters) below ground. But the department said it took a 43-minute rescue operation to remove him from the tunnel to above ground.

Engie failed to report the worker’s hospitalization within 24 hours as required under OSHA rules, missing the deadline by four hours, records show. The agency performed an inspection of the work site days later.

Inspectors found that the ladder from which he fell had a width of 15 inches (38.1 centimeters) between its side rails, an inch (2.5 centimeters) less than safety rules require. The citation said that exposed workers to a risk of falling.

Inspectors also found the ladder had suffered significant corrosion on its bottom 10 inches (25.4 centimeters), also increasing fall risks. They found a second ladder that led to the tunnel was too close to a sump line, violating a rule that requires more space between rungs and the nearest object.

Clingan, the Engie spokesman, said one ladder has been repaired and another has been temporarily taken out of service. The company inspected other ladders and will repair any deficiencies that are identified, he said.

Clingan defended the company’s overall safety record, citing data showing it has fewer lost-time incidents than most of its competitors and a goal to eliminate all injuries. He said the company continues to integrate its safety practices and culture with “the recently added members of our workforce.”

OSHA records show the university's facilities management division, which previously oversaw utilities, was cited for safety violations only once in the last 10 years, a 2019 case that resulted in a $8,051 fine.

Steam tunnels, where workers maintain pipes that distribute steam to heat and cool buildings, can be dangerous. In 2018, a 61-year-old steamfitter at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls died after getting caught in a massive steam leak. A university investigation found that a cap that failed was likely to blame, and the school paid $14,000 to settle safety violations.