The Las Vegas Sun has won the 2009 Roy W. Howard public service reporting award for stories and editorials that led to sweeping safety improvements at Las Vegas Strip construction sites following a string of worker deaths.
The award was announced Friday morning by the Scripps Howard Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the media enterprise E.W. Scripps Co. The foundation is dedicated to journalism excellence, First Amendment causes and journalism education. It also recognized the work of journalists at the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, Boston Globe and other newspapers.
The Sun began reporting about construction deaths last March. The death toll on the Strip had reached nine in 16 months as casino giants undertook a $32 billion building boom, including the largest private commercial development in U.S. history.
Sun reporter Alexandra Berzon described how the rush to build quickly and at highly congested work sites led to safety shortcuts that contributed to and sometimes clearly caused deaths.
Berzon found that Nevada state occupational safety authorities responsible for policing safety routinely withdrew violations that its investigators had issued against contractors for the deaths. Nevada OSHA withdrew those citations after meeting privately with contractors who argued that the workers were responsible for their own deaths.
“The Sun is proud to have won this important national award,” said Managing Editor Michael J. Kelley. “It is a tribute to the in-depth journalism that we specialize in. It is also well-deserved recognition for Ali Berzon, the reporter, who has written more than 50 stories on this situation; her editor, Drex Heikes, who first realized that the mounting worker death toll on Strip construction projects should be investigated, and editorial writers Dave Clayton and Matt Hufman.
“It has been an excellent team effort, also involving photographers, designers, graphic artists and headline writers, and it continues as we work to ensure that needed changes in workplace safety practices in Las Vegas actually are made and that state safety regulators actually do their jobs.”
Berzon’s reporting on Strip working conditions also led her to the intersection of Nevada OSHA and state politics. She reported that a top aide to Gov. Jim Gibbons had become involved in the resolution of a double-fatality at the Orleans Hotel and Casino, owned by a Gibbons supporter.
The aide’s involvement and OSHA’s decision to greatly water down the violations against the company so angered the OSHA investigator and the Orleans safety official involved that both quit their jobs.
The Sun’s editorials by Clayton and Hufman condemned the safety record at Strip building sites and called for urgent action to improve safety and to reform Nevada OSHA.
Hufman also researched the history and current practices of federal OSHA. His work culminated in a five-part series of editorials calling for overhaul of the federal agency, whose actions under the Bush administration had relaxed safety requirements on construction sites.
The Sun’s coverage led to calls for reform in Congress and the Nevada Legislature. The U.S. House and Senate held hearings on federal OSHA and, citing the Sun’s stories, urged swift action. Sens. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy, Harry Reid and others wrote to then President Bush to demand reforms.
None of those efforts stopped the mounting death toll immediately. Two more workers died in the spring.
But after the 11th fatality, construction workers and their union leaders, newly aware of facts surrounding the deaths and OSHA’s conduct, walked off the job at the MGM Mirage’s CityCenter and the adjacent Cosmopolitan.
They refused to return until the contractor at both projects, Perini Building Company, agreed to safety improvements.
A 12th death occurred in June just as those improvements began. But it was the last fatal accident.
Safety improved. Not one worker has died on the Strip in nine months. In all, Berzon wrote 53 stories and the Sun carried 21 editorials about construction safety in 2008.
Roy W. Howard, for whom the public service award is named, was a distinguished newspaperman who rose to prominence in the first half of the 20th century. He served as head of the former United Press news service, a one-time rival to the Associated Press. He joined Scripps newspapers in 1920.
Other awards announced by the Scripps Howard Foundation include:
--Investigative Reporting. Three reporters at the Miami Herald for their work on the “Florida mortgage crises that led to changes in state laws, polices and personnel.”
--Commentary. Paul Krugman of the New York Times for “courageously and prophetically clarifying complex economic issues.”
--Washington Reporting. David Willman of the Los Angeles Times for “revealing the FBI and Justice Department’s botched anthrax investigations that ended with a suicide rather than an arrest and a trial.”
--Environmental Reporting. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for investigations “into toxic consumer goods and derelict regulatory agencies that permit their sale.”
--Business/Economics Reporting. Farah Stockman of the Boston Globe for “identifying U.S. corporations that were covertly using international relationships and offshore operations to avoid taxes, side-step U.S. laws and deny workers’ rights.”
The awards will be given out at a dinner April 24 in Washington D.C.