2009 Pulitzer Winner Presents Today's Upton Sinclair Memorial Lecture
The 2009 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service was awarded to the Las Vegas Sun and the reporting by Alexandra Berzon, for the exposure of the high death rate among construction workers on the Las Vegas Strip amid lax enforcement of regulations, leading to changes in policy and improved safety conditions. The AIHce 2009 Upton Sinclair Memorial Lecture at 10:30 a.m. today in Toronto will feature Berzon. Her presentation, "When Safety Systems Don't Work: A Reporter Explores the Toll of Las Vegas's Boom Years," will offer the back story to this reporting and discuss how those involved in workplace health and safety can help journalists understand and call attention to such concerns.
Over an 18-month period, 12 construction workers died in towers that have recently transformed the skyline of the Las Vegas Strip. Many dismissed those deaths as the tragic result of mistakes from workers that are only inevitable on projects so large. Berzon spent the last year investigating the root causes of those deaths and found they were not inevitable. She revealed a pattern of safety violations on projects that were unprecedented in their size, speed, and congestion. She also found a disturbing lack of accountability, as the state's Occupational Safety and Health Administration reversed citations against employers without providing additional evidence or justification for that decision.
Angered by the revelations and continuing death toll, workers walked off the job at MGM Mirage's CityCenter, shutting down the largest private commercial development in U.S. history--where six workers had died--until the contractors agreed to safety improvements. The U.S. Congress, Nevada State Legislature, and a roundtable of local officials followed with hearings. Deaths on the Strip stopped and awareness for construction safety grew measurably in Las Vegas.
The Upton Sinclair Memorial Lecture on outstanding occupational health, safety, and environmental investigative journalism is hosted by the AIHA Social Concerns Committee. Berzon's reporting has won the Scripps Howard Foundation's public service award. It was also a finalist for the American Society of Newspaper Editors local accountability award.