Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Florida Public Employees Pay The Ultimate Price For No OSHA Coverage

Two Daytona Beach wastewater treatment plant employees were killed last week when a methanol tank exploded while they were using a cutting torch above the tank to remove a roof damaged in a hurricane. The tank at the Bethune Point water treatment facility had apparently been venting fumes during the warm weather. Eric Johnson, the 59-year-old lead plant mechanic at the Bethune Point Wastewater Treatment Plant was killed instantly, and maintenance worker Clyde Anthony Jones, 40, died the following day. Maintenance worker Michael Martin, 42, is in critical condition.

Just another couple of deaths in the American workplace? These were slightly different because public employees in Florida, like those in 26 other states, are not covered by OSHA. For that reason, the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board has decided to investigate.
"The workers do need to have a fundamental understanding of the hazards they are working with," said Robert Hall, lead investigator with the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board in Washington, D.C., who is looking into the incident. His agency, which does not issue citations but makes recommendations to prevent future accidents, is investigating whether the employees knew about safety measures.

"Certainly when you work in the vicinity of flammable tanks, you have to take certain precautions," Hall said.

He said the chemical-safety board has requested training records for the employees. They had not been provided Friday afternoon.

The Bethune Point Wastewater Treatment Plant is not regulated by any state or federal agency for safety issues, and city officials said Friday they could not answer whose responsibility it was.

But if an agency similar to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration oversaw the plant, there would have been detailed regulations about what the workers could and could not do, Hall said. He said Florida, like about two dozen other states, falls into a legal loophole where municipalities are not regulated.
According to CSB Chairman Carolyn Merritt:
This was a serious incident involving the tragic loss of life at a government-owned facility where work activity is not overseen by any government entity. The wastewater treatment worksite was not subject to any outside safety inspections or regulations, a situation that is common in many states. We want to find out whether that was a factor in this accident and then decide what should be done about it.
There are currently bills in the US House of Representatives, H-2004 introduced by Congressman Major Owens (D-NY), and the Senate, S-5944, introduced by Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) that call for coverage of public employees. Similar bills are introduced every year, but are stopped by the Republicans who control Congress.

Related Articles

Public Employees: Live Like Slaves, Die Like Dogs (Part 5), August 30, 2005
Public Employee Safety and Health: Follow-Up, April 12, 2004
America's Most Mistreated Workers: Public Employees, April 08, 2004
Public Employees to Senator Graham: Go Forth and Agitate, December 12, 2003