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I will never forget the morning of June 5, 2013. I was sitting in my office at the U.S. Department of Labor in Philadelphia when my husband, an avid thrift store visitor and eBay practitioner, called me to let me know that the Salvation Army Thrift Store at 22nd and Market Streets had just collapsed. He planned to visit the store during his lunch break that day because he knew it regularly received fresh merchandise each week. His call marked the first I’d heard of the incident, so I quickly turned on the news and watched as reporters began trying to put the pieces together in an effort to understand what happened.
By 4 p.m. that afternoon, I was at the scene of the incident along with my colleagues from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, briefing Mayor Nutter and Senator Casey about OSHA’s role and awaiting the start of their press conference. I vividly remember standing in the midst of what seemed like organized chaos—the kind that always finds its way in the face of a tragedy. When the rubble cleared, it was determined that due to the demolition of an adjacent building, the Salvation Army store, which was open and full of shoppers and staff at the time of the collapse, was the site of multiple fatalities: six people died and 14 others were injured.
The construction contractor, Griffin Campbell, and excavator operator, Sean Benschop, were charged with involuntary manslaughter and other charges. They were found guilty of manslaughter, and Campbell and Benschop received prison sentences of 15 years to 30 years, and 7.5 years to 15 years, respectively.
The sentencing wasn’t the only outcome. Out of the tragedy grew an even stronger partnership between OSHA and the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections. This included cross-training for OSHA and L&I staffs, as well as an unprecedented referral system, which has resulted in more than 300 workers being removed from life-threatening hazards to date.
In July, OSHA and L&I joined the Philadelphia Area Project on Occupational Safety and Health (PhilaPOSH), a coalition made up of unions, and health and legal professionals that fight for safe and protected workplaces, as well as for the rights of injured workers, to launch a new initiative to further the good work. The Grassroots Injury and Illness Prevention Program (GRIIP) is a community call to action, empowering the public to recognize, identify, and report potential construction-related occupational hazards and/or public safety issues they see in their communities, as well as equipping community members with the proper tools for resolution. GRIIP is designed to educate the public about the direct connection that exists between a safe worksite and the safety and health of members of the surrounding community.
The current building boom in Philadelphia makes the need for an informed public even more critical. GRIIP facilitates a three-way partnership between OSHA, L&I and the Greater Philadelphia community. Representatives from the agencies will present GRIIP training at community meetings throughout the city. The first meetings were held on July 20 in South Philadelphia and Sept. 14 in the Bella Vista section of the city. Members of the public can get involved in the GRIIP project by doing the following:
• Call OSHA or PhilaPOSH if potential occupational hazards are spotted, or L&I if there is a public safety concern.
• Send photos of dangerous worksites or occupational hazards to OSHAPhiladelphia@dol.gov.
• Join the conversation on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram using #GRIIPmovement.
• Schedule a GRIIP meeting in your community.
It’s been three years since that tragic day, and the empty lot on the city block that remains is a reminder of the loss suffered by so many, resulting from the careless act of a few. However, there is hope due to an exciting new effort that demonstrates what kind of change that can occur when agencies representing different levels of government join forces — lives can be saved and an entire city can work together to prevent future senseless accidents.
Editor's note: This post originally appeared in Re:CAP, a publication of the Fels Institute of Government.
Leni Uddyback-Fortson is the regional director of public affairs for the U.S. Department of Labor in Philadelphia.