Without state OSHA plans, water and wastewater workers are vulnerable
Workers are widely considered an organization's most valuable asset, and in the private sector, federal OSHA programs typically dictate safe working conditions. In 27 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, public sector employees are protected by an approved state OSHA plan. Of those plans, 21 cover private and government workers, and the other five cover only state and local government workers.
The remaining states do not have coverage for public sector employees. OSHA does not have jurisdiction in those states for state and local government workers, which leaves employees vulnerable to unsafe working conditions and unsafe work practices.
Many municipal workers perform excavations, repair piping that contains asbestos and cut through concrete that creates silica dust. If these employees operate without a federal or state OSHA program, they are more likely to use inadequate respiratory protection and be exposed to carcinogenic material. Also, without a state OSHA program, municipal employees might not receive proper training for procedures such as lockout/tagout or confined space entry.
At water and wastewater treatment plants, daily workplace dangers include chemical exposure, fall hazards, extremely high electrical voltage and more. These hazards, which are managed through a federal or state OSHA program within the private sector, can easily be controlled and should be under regulation in the public sector.
In recent years, workplace fatalities have captured the public’s attention and caught the eye of the Chemical Safety Board (CSB). One such incident occurred at the Daytona Beach Wastewater Treatment Plant (Florida) where a worker was fatally injured in a preventable accident. According to a CSB investigation, two municipal workers died and another was seriously injured while using a cutting torch to remove a steel roof over a storage tank that contained methanol. CSB found the City of Daytona Beach did not have a program to control hot work, such as welding, because the facility was not required to by a regulatory agency.
At the time, John Breslin, the CSB chairman, encouraged Governor Charlie Crist to support workplace safety for state, county and municipal employees by creating the Florida Public Task Force on Workplace Safety. This task force suggested Florida adapt OSHA general industry and construction rules for public sector workers within three years.
On July 18, 2011, CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso asked the State of Florida to reconsider its decision not to protect state and municipal public workers.
“Since no bill to secure health and safety protection for Florida’s public employees was introduced during the 2011 legislative session, the board has concluded that neither you [Gov. Rick Scott], nor the state legislative intend to take action to implement the CSB’s recommendation,” Moure-Eraso said. “Florida’s inaction is unacceptable as it means public employees doing potentially hazardous work have adequate workplace protection, which they would have if they were private sector workers. The CSB has found that currently 27 states and jurisdictions operate safety and health programs for their public employees. There can be little doubt that these basic workplace standards help prevent accidents and save lives in those states.”
Cost and staffing are the greatest hurdles for a creating a state OSHA plan. Some funding is available through federal OSHA, which matches up to 50 percent of the operational budget of any state plan. Municipalities, cities, counties or townships often have high worker comp premiums due to experience modification rates, which is passed on directly to the taxpayers. Therefore, by creating a state OSHA plan, which in turn creates a safer work environment, cost savings could be realized with lower premiums.
In New York, Connecticut and New Jersey, the state plans govern the public sector and the federal plan dictates the private sector. By doing this, federal OSHA standards apply to both private and public sector employees. The states are then able to fund and staff a smaller program. Additionally, a state OSHA plan creates jobs and solves a moral dilemma.
Each state without a state OSHA plan has to make a choice: Will the state protect its most valuable assets — the public sector workers — or keep the status quo?