Dangerous Florida Jobs
Many Florida municipalities lack public worker safety programs, so last year the state recommended enacting workplace safety and health laws for public sector employees. Read the status of these new rules.
In January 2006, three Daytona Beach city workers were cutting away and removing portions of a damaged roof that covered a methanol storage tank at the Bethune Point Wastewater Treatment Plant when sparks from the welding torch they were using ignited vapors coming from the tank, causing an explosion that engulfed the workers in flames. Eric Johnson, a 59-year-old maintenance supervisor, died in the explosion, and another maintenance worker, 40-year-old Clyde Jones, died the next day. A third worker sitting in the cab of the crane was severely burned.
Investigators with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board identified several causes of the accident — including a lack of recognition of the hazards of methanol, a lack of safety and hazard review in job planning and faulty equipment. Carolyn Merritt, chairwoman and CEO of the safety board, testified before Congress that the hazards of using a torch in proximity to the methanol tank would likely have been identified — and the accident possibly been prevented — if Florida public employees were covered under federal OSHA regulations.
The chemical safety board determined in its investigation that the city of Daytona Beach had held only seven hazard communication training programs in the last 12 years and none since 2002. Moreover, the city had provided no training on methanol hazards and had no safety program, written or otherwise, to control “hot work.” Overall, the board found that there had been 34 chemical incidents at Florida public facilities in the last five years, which had resulted in the two fatalities, 10 injuries, 23 medical evaluations for exposure and 16 community or facility evacuations.
Although public employers are exempt from having to follow OSHA rules, states can choose to follow the agency’s federal standards for workplace safety is they choose. Specifically, they may create their own OSHA-approved programs or can provide OSHA coverage as a public-employee only plan. Florida had its own independent program providing safety and health protection to public employees until 1999, when it was repealed by the Legislature.
In its place, then-Gov. Jeb Bush issued an executive order instructing certain state agencies to voluntarily comply with general industry OSHA standards and requesting that cities and counties “review existing policies, practices and procedures ... and implement any ... made necessary by the repeal.” With no state or federal oversight of public safety in Florida, many Florida municipalities today lack public worker safety programs.
Following the Daytona Beach incident, which is still in litigation, state lawmakers decided to revisit the issue and in 2008 convened the Florida Public Task Force on Workplace Safety to make recommendations for enacting workplace safety and health laws for public sector employees in Florida. The 15-member task force, chaired by Department of Management Services Secretary Linda South, submitted a report to the Legislature in January recommending that it pass legislation extending OSHA protections to all public employees in the state, including local government workers, within three years.
Carol Westmoreland, associate director of membership development for the Florida League of Cities, called the group’s recommendations a “sledge hammer” approach, which could burden cities and counties at a time when their budgets are already stretched and won’t necessarily have the intended effect. Westmoreland says the 262 Florida cities that have a population of fewer than 10,000 will likely find it burdensome to implement a “5-inch thick” regulation book and apply across-the-board OSHA protections to employees who may not work in particularly hazardous jobs. “The easiest route is not the route that will get you the desired results, unless you have the teeth to enforce it and the staff to enforce it are you going to get where you want to go.”
In a minority opinion, five members of the task force recommended that the state, instead, ask all public employees and employees to voluntarily comply with current OSHA standards through a safety and health accreditation program.
But Gary Visscher, a board member of the chemical safety board, says private sector data show that the upfront cost of a safety program ultimately saves money because the program lowers workers’ compensation costs, decreases insurance costs and results in less absenteeism and few lawsuits. Statewide, Florida currently incurs an estimated $693 million annually in direct costs for injuries to public employees.