Although the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 required employers to provide safe work environments and established federal OSHA to enforce the law, it did not impose the requirement on government employers.   Federal employees are covered by a Presidential Executive Order, but state and local government employees are not protected unless they are employed in a state that has exercised its right to establish a state OSHA program or one (New York, New Jersey or Connecticut) that operates under federal OSHA but has set up a special program for government employees.

Currently, public employees in 26 states are not covered by OSHA safety and health standards. Without such coverage, these workers are at greater risk for injury or death. The impact of this disparity was brought to light by an accident three years ago in Daytona Beach, Florida, that has become the focal point of a new effort to broaden OSHA coverage to all public employees.

In January, 2006, two workers died and one was badly injured when a welding job in the city-operated Bethune Point Wastewater Plant sparked a fire and explosion. According to an investigative report by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB), city workers were removing a steel roof above a storage tank that contained methyl alcohol, which is highly flammable. Sparks from torch cutting ignited vapors from the tank, starting a fire which subsequently caused an explosion inside the tank.

It was later discovered that the tank violated the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Flammable and Combustible Liquids Code. Essential safety devices on the tank were corroded and had not been inspected in over ten years. Also, piping attached to the tank was made of plastic. Further, workers were not informed of the chemical dangers, as required by OSHA regulation. The accident prompted a recommendation by the chairman of the CSB to Florida’s state government to extend federal OSHA coverage to public employees (see the CSB’s safety message on YouTube). If properly followed, the standards set by OSHA and the NFPA would have prevented those city workers from being in harm’s way.

Since Florida does not currently have a state OSHA plan, the CSB urged state officials to extend federal OSHA coverage to state and local government employees. In 2008, state lawmakers responded by developing the Florida Public Task Force on Workplace Safety. This task force produced a final report in December that detailed recommendations for state legislators, including the requirement that government employers record all injuries and illnesses using OSHA’s criteria and form 300.

The state has yet to enact any changes. Regional members of The American Society of Safety Engineers are also urging Florida lawmakers to make safety a priority. Regarding states without OSHA coverage for their public workers, CSB Chairman John Bresland recently said, “The accident in Florida should serve as a cautionary tale to the 25 other states that are in the same situation.”

He continued, “Our public employees are simply too vital an asset to risk their being killed, injured or disabled in preventable workplace accidents.”

The LHSFNA’s Occupational Safety and Health Division has worked with LIUNA public employee locals to extend OSHA coverage to public employees to ensure that Laborers work in safe environments everywhere in the United States. Legislation – the Protecting America’s Workers Act of 2009 [link] – that would require such protection was introduced in Congress last week. For more information, contact the Fund at (202) 628-5465.

[Jennifer E. Jones]