Pultizer Prize-winning reporter describes quest for truth in Las Vegas construction deaths

By Donal Brown

Wall Street Journal reporter Alexandra Berzon said that favorable circumstances set the stage for the stories on Las Vegas construction deaths that earned her a 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service when she was with the Las Vegas Sun. It is clear, though, that her success in the project derived centrally from her determined questioning: Why were there so many workers dying on the strip? And why were the companies able to evade citations for violating safety rules?

In an interview with James Rainey, media columnist for the Los Angeles Times, Berzon described her year-long quest for the truth at the 14th Annual Assembly for Free Speech and Open Government in Los Angeles October 24 hosted by the First Amendment Coalition and Southwestern Law School.

Berzon said the first thing she did was to find out about OSHA, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency responsible for worker safety. She also tried to document the number of deaths. Over more than 18 months, 12 workers had died. Many were reported in the Las Vegas Review Journal, but not all.

In investigating the deaths, Berzon encountered some mind sets that presented obstacles in covering the story. One such set was that dying went with the territory. You could expect to die, and if you did, it was your fault.

During the building boom, the focus was on getting the buildings up in the fastest time possible. Said Berzon, “Companies got bonuses if they finished the job early and penalties if they were late.” With everyone employed and the building boom in full gear, few were interested in looking closely at why so many were dying. It was not surprising that blame fell on the workers for not wearing protective gear.

When Berzon talked to workers, she found they were under great pressure. There was lots of overtime so they were more tired. They were asked to work more quickly so sometimes they chose the fastest and less safe way to do a job.

In these circumstances, there were few concerned about the deaths. “Nobody was protesting, no officials, only workers and their families,” said Berzon.

Berzon started to look more closely at the role of Nevada OSHA and federal OSHA with headquarters in San Francisco. Accessing public records, Berzon soon discovered that many of the citations issues by OSHA were withdrawn after a meeting with employers alone – no family members or union representatives were included – and fines levied were drastically reduced. The safety agencies were not providing any evidence about why there were so many deaths.

In that context, Berzon interviewed a retired OSHA official who reassured her that what was happening was wrong and that gave her the confidence to maintain pursuit.

The workers themselves were upset by Berzon’s stories fearing that they would lose their jobs. Berzon and some of her fellow reporters and sources received threats. But soon the workers staged a walk out, a sign that they were concerned about safety issues on the job.

Berzon wrote 53 stories and the series brought results. No workers have died since June of 2008. OSHA tightened their enforcement; Congress held hearings on the Las Vegas construction deaths; and the Nevada legislature passed a new worker safety law.

Part of the success came because the Sun put a human face on the story by filming interviews of people who had lost family members. The videos ran on the Sun’s website so that public got a feeling for the people who died.

Berzon said several things worked in her favor in doing the prize-winning series. In an arrangement to save the newspaper, the Las Vegas Sun became an insert in the afternoon edition of the Las Vegas Review Journal. With the Journal reporting the routine news stories, Sun reporters were able to devote their efforts to long term projects.

She also said that Las Vegas has about 2 million inhabitants, San Francisco about a million, but Las Vegas has fewer than half as many reporters. Add to that the incredible growth and change in the city, and it was fertile ground for reporters.

Berzon gave credit to her Sun editor, Drex Heikes. She initially thought she would write two stories and a couple of followups and be done, but Heikes recognized the necessity to keep digging on the story so she ended up filing a story once or twice a week for a year.

“Drex had an incredible passion for the story and kept pushing me,” said Berzon.

Las Vegas Sun series on construction deaths