Fermilab’s $1 billion accelerator project remains on hold during investigation into May accident that injured construction worker

A massive project to build one of the world’s most powerful particle accelerators at Fermilab has been halted since May 25 while federal authorities investigate an accident that severely injured a northwest Indiana ironworker three months into construction.

James Daniels, 46, fell from the top of a two-story wall during his first day on the job. Hospitalized for several months, he has filed a lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court against Fermi Research Alliance, which operates the site, as well as the contractor and subcontractors in charge of the construction project.

“James is going to have a lifetime of disability related to this occurrence,” said Michael Fisher, an attorney with GWC Injury Lawyers, a Chicago-based firm representing Daniels in the lawsuit. “It’s extremely unlikely that he will ever return to work as a Local 1 ironworker.”

The Proton Improvement Plan II, a 10-year, $978 million project funded by the Department of Energy, which owns the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, is expected to enhance groundbreaking experiments in particle physics by creating a more powerful accelerator at the heart of the sprawling research facility.

But in the wake of the accident, the project remains on hold, with no target date for resumption.

“A phased restart plan has been developed,” Fermilab spokesperson Tracy Marc said in an email. “FRA (Fermi Research Alliance) is working closely with our subcontractors and DOE’s Fermi Site Office to ensure a thorough plan is in place and appropriate steps are taken prior to restarting the construction work.”

Marc declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The project had barely broken ground when the ironworker fell 23 feet while attempting to secure reinforcing steel bars near the top of a newly erected wall, according to a DOE accident investigation report published Sept. 6. Captured on a live 24/7 construction camera documenting progress at the site, the May 25 accident resulted in “serious injuries, including head trauma,” according to the report.

It took more than an hour before the worker was airlifted to Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, according to the report, which did not name the injured worker.

The accident report concluded the Fermi Research Alliance, as well as the contractor and subcontractors, failed to define and implement proper safety procedures at the construction site.

“Based upon the findings of this accident investigation, the (DOE-appointed Accident Investigation) Board concluded that this accident and the resulting injury was preventable,” the report stated.

The Proton Improvement Plan II will build a powerful new superconducting linear accelerator to create the world’s most intense high-energy neutrino beam, enabling global scientific study of the “ghost particles” believed to hold the key to understanding the evolution of the universe.

Among other applications, the accelerator will send the beam 800 miles to the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment in South Dakota. It will also provide increased beam power for a variety of research and experiments at Fermilab.

The DOE formally approved construction of the accelerator project in April 2022, funded by congressional appropriation.

In December, Fermilab signed an agreement with Whittaker Construction and Excavation, a LaSalle County contractor hired to oversee the project. Whittaker subcontracted with Nucor Harris Rebar Midwest for supporting form and concrete preparation work, which then subcontracted with Harris Rebar Placing for reinforcing steel and couplers installation. The injured worker was employed by Harris Rebar Placing.

“We are in the process of working toward a restart,” said Kevin Bomstad, senior project manager for Whittaker Construction. “It was a severe accident, and I think we’re all trying to cross our t’s and dot our i’s and comply. We’re obviously anxious to return to work. But we understand there are certain measures that need to be taken on all parts.”

Nucor Harris Rebar Midwest and Harris Rebar Placing, affiliated companies with local offices in Bourbonnais, did not respond to requests for comment. Canadian-based parent company Nucor Harris Rebar also did not respond.

Bomstad said both Whittaker and the subcontractors remain on the project, but he did not comment on the lawsuit.

Site excavation began Feb. 23, according to Fermilab. On May 24, Whittaker carpenters installed several sections of form walls on the north and west sides of the project, using aerial lifts, according to the report. The following day, Harris Rebar Placing ironworkers used a crane to install a rebar column at the northwest corner of what was to be the front-end building housing the start of the PIP-II linear accelerator.

On the afternoon of May 25, Daniels was tasked with climbing the wall to secure a rebar template being hoisted on the other side by three colleagues. He lost his footing and fell to a concrete slab below, striking a diagonal cross brace halfway down, according to the DOE report. A fall arrest system worn by the worker was “not applied or utilized,” and he sustained serious injuries, the report said.

Fisher said Daniels should have been provided an aerial lift to do the work, which was available onsite. Another option would have been a ladder. Daniels should have at least received required instructions on where and how to attach his safety harness as he ascended, which he did not, Fisher said.

Instead, Daniels climbed the wall using narrow horizontal metal pieces of the form wall as a foothold, while grabbing onto whatever he could on his way up, Fisher said.

“There was a real breach of safety protocol by numerous designated safety people for the defendants who should have known these things,” Fisher said. “And all of these things would have stopped Mr. Daniels from falling approximately 25 feet from the top of the form.”

The fall happened about 1 p.m. Within seconds, co-workers and a supervisor came to the aid of the fallen ironworker, who was initially unconscious, according to the report. But the process to render medical assistance encountered a number of obstacles.

The nearest first aid kit was located in the Whittaker construction trailer, outside the excavation area, so a bandanna was used to wipe away blood from his mouth, according to the DOE report. The workers called the FRA emergency dispatch using a number affixed to their hard hats. The FRA Fire Department arrived within minutes, with workers carrying the injured man on a stretcher to meet the ambulance.

Batavia paramedics arrived on the scene and the injured worker was moved to their ambulance at 1:29 p.m., according to the report.

The worker regained consciousness, but given the severity of the fall, emergency responders transported him to a Level 1 trauma center. They called LifeStar Chicago to airlift the worker via helicopter to Good Samaritan Hospital, hoping to save time over an ambulance ride, according to the report.

The helicopter landed at the construction site at 1:51 p.m., and the worker arrived at the hospital at 2:26 p.m. — more than 80 minutes after the fall. The report found that the helicopter evacuation took 25 minutes longer than if the worker had been transported to the hospital by ambulance.

No one witnessed the accident, but investigators relied on the online construction camera, which remains active, as well as a Fermilab security camera, to reconstruct what happened.

The DOE report “neither determines nor implies liability,” but recommended a long list of managerial and safety controls needed to prevent a recurrence of such an accident. Those include correcting work control deficiencies, conducting ongoing field verification of safety compliance and establishing a “flow down” of safety requirements from the FRA to “all levels” of subcontractors.

“FRA is already implementing improvements in its oversight functions for its subcontractors’ safety measures,” Marc said in an email. “A focused effort to broadly educate workers across the lab and the workers who come to the lab as subcontractors in workplace safety is ongoing. These efforts include enhancement of oversight when subcontractors hold the means and methods of construction.”

Those measures may help restart the project, but the lawsuit, which was filed May 31 in Cook County Circuit Court against Fermi Research Alliance and Whittaker Construction, remains ongoing. Fisher plans to file an amended lawsuit Thursday, adding Nucor Harris Rebar Midwest as a defendant. The company subcontracted his client’s employer, Harris Rebar Placing.

The lawsuit alleges construction negligence by Fermi Research Alliance, Whittaker Construction and the subcontractors, and is seeking in excess of $50,000 plus legal costs. As part of the lawsuit, Fisher filed an ancillary action on behalf of Daniels’ wife, Geraldine Daniels, for loss of consortium, which allows the spouse of an injured person to recover damages caused by the impairment of the marital relationship.

Daniels, who was in an induced coma for nearly a month, suffered multiple skull fractures, collapsed lungs, a scapular fracture, rib fractures, spinal fractures and an “altered mental status,” Fisher said. He was at Good Samaritan Hospital for more than five weeks and then transferred to Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago for a stay that lasted well over another month.

More recently, Daniels was discharged to rehabilitative home care, Fisher said.

“James is still in the early stages of whatever recovery he’s going to make,” Fisher said. “It’s going to be awhile before we can actually ascertain true damages. But it’ll be something significant, certainly.”