Local News

Duke employee's death raises workplace-safety concerns

Posted May 15, 2008 11:41 a.m. EDT
Updated May 15, 2008 6:23 p.m. EDT

— A master steamfitter killed Wednesday when a steam line exploded in the basement of a Duke University research building kept a log about safety concerns on the job, his stepson says.

Rayford Cofer, 63, of Franklinton, was working in a mechanical room in the basement of the Levine Science Research Center when the accident occurred, the school said. There were no other injuries.

"We hear a lot of stories from guys down there that, you know – we plan on talking to our attorney about it to see if it is something we need to be aware of or something we can do there," Cofer's stepson, William Coble, said. "Is something here? If there is, we're going to move forward with it."

Coble would not talk about specific concerns but did say Cofer, who had been employed by Duke since 2001, was told to "patch things" when they should have been repaired more extensively.

"They only made him fix things that were broken at the last moment," Coble said.

Kemel Dawkins, Duke's vice president of campus services, said the school is taking the allegations seriously and will "launch a full investigation into this incident and its causes and any other issues that this may raise."

He said Wednesday that there were no previous problems with the building's systems.
"Obviously, we're learning more every moment, but we're still far away from drawing any firm conclusions from this," he said Thursday.

The Department of Labor's Division of Occupational Safety and Health is also investigating. It could be up to three months before investigators reach any conclusions, a spokesman said.

The Levine Science Research Center is a 341,000-square-foot facility that houses animals and scientific samples, as well as classrooms, laboratory space and offices for several science departments.

Cleanup is still under way in the building following Wednesday's rupture, but the building reopened Thursday for most of the day.

It closed again Thursday evening for crews to do additional work, but Dawkins said it will reopen Friday at 9 a.m. Decisions about whether the building will be open this weekend will be made later, he said.

Department of Labor spokesman Neal O'Briant said there has only been one serious violation against Duke in the last 20 years.

That was in 1992 and involved a trench near a construction site. The university was fined $13,950, O'Briant said.