Sounding Board...

From Where I Sit

By Mark Friend, Ed.D. CSP
Chair, AAS, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
Daytona Beach FL 32114

From where I sit, I see that the safety system in the United States is broken. Just a few miles beyond my office are the Inter-coastal waterway and the Atlantic Ocean. Last year at a facility on the Inter-coastal, two workers were killed and another was badly burned in an accident involving welding a roof over a leaking fuel tank. Chemical Safety Board member and investigator William Wright said, "This accident emphasizes the need for effective hot work programs, hazard communication, and careful engineering of flammable liquid systems. If these measures had been in place this accident likely could have been prevented" (U.S.Chemical Safety Board, March 2007). Lead investigator Robert Hall, P.E. said "It is important for the State of Florida and the City of Daytona Beach to protect its employees from tragic accidents like this by promptly enacting new safety rules." Since the workers were municipal employees and neither the federal government, the state of Florida, Volusia County, nor the city of Daytona Beach have laws or regulations in place requiring compliance with any occupational safety and health regulations, the city of Daytona Beach chose not to put any procedures in place to protect the workers. Florida is one of 26 states that do not require public employees to follow OSHA standards. In Florida and a number of other states, if you are a public employee you do not have the right to work in an environment free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm. The same can be said of most federal employees. 

My office window overlooks the construction site of our new campus building. From where I sit, I have watched workers risk their safety, health and lives on a daily basis. As I type, I’ve observed five workers climb onto a scaffold merely using the framing and moving around it with no toe board, mid or top rail. As I’ve watched the workers over the last few months, my mind keeps wandering to circus acrobats working without benefit of any safety net. They often wear safety harnesses, but I have yet to see the harness attached to anything other than another point on the harness or a belt loop on their trousers. Although they cut concrete and frequently work around noisy machinery, I have not seen anyone wearing noise protection. I’ve observed materials falling and nearly hitting workers. I’ve witnessed workers walking a tightrope across the tops of walls and beams. I have complained to my contacts and they have expressed concerns to the contractor but nothing on the worksite changes. From where I sit, I see that the safety system is broken. 

It has been reported that if OSHA inspected every covered worksite in America each visit would occur over a century apart. As a result, OSHA has attempted to focus on the more hazardous worksites and we know from multiple, documented sources that inspections reduce accidents. I suspect that even the threat of inspections also reduces accidents. From where I sit, there is no threat for employers of many of our workers. Numbers of fatalities are generally higher in the last few years than normal. That is a problem and it needs to be addressed. Placing the blame on OSHA is not the answer. The employees I know who work for OSHA are dedicated and doing everything they know how to do to protect our nation’s workers. The problem lies in Congress. Every worker in the United States should have the right to be protected by OSHA or its equivalent. All workers should know their rights and how to exercise them. OSHA needs a certain level of manpower to assure those rights are enforced. As educators, our job is to help teach our workers their rights. As opportunities present themselves, I urge you to also encourage your legislators to extend those rights to all workers and provide an adequate budget to assure those rights are safeguarded. From where I sit, the safety system in the United States is broken and these are the first steps in protecting workers from their employers and their places of work. 

U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. “CSB Releases Final Report and New Safety Video on Fatal Bethune Point Wastewater Treatment Plant Explosion, Calls on the State of Florida to Enact Legislation to Protect Public Employees” CSB News Release, March, 2007.