CSB seeks safety programs, standards for public workers

RP news wires, Noria Corporation
Tags: workplace safety

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) on May 24 urged "governments at all levels to take steps to protect public employees from preventable chemical accidents, including the establishment of programs incorporating mandatory OSHA standards."

In written testimony submitted May 24 for a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee hearing, CSB chairman Carolyn W. Merritt, speaking on behalf of the five-member board, said, "It is simply inequitable to afford public employees with lesser workplace protections than workers in private industry. No worker – whether employed by the city, county, state, federal government or the private sector – should have to suffer injury or death just to earn a living."

The hearing before the House Committee on Education and Labor Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, chaired by Rep. Lynn Woolsey (California), was entitled "Workplace Safety: Why do Millions of Workers Remain Without OSHA Coverage?"

The board testimony cited the CSB's investigation of a January 2006 methanol fire and explosion at a Florida municipal wastewater treatment plant that killed two public employees and seriously injured a third. The final report and a computer-animated safety video on the explosion at the Bethune Point Wastewater Treatment Plant are available from the board's Web site, CSB.gov, under "Completed Investigations."

The accident at the wastewater facility, which is owned and operated by the City of Daytona Beach, occurred when city employees using a cutting torch to dismantle a metal roof accidentally ignited vapors coming from the vent of a nearby methanol storage tank. Flames traveled back into the storage tank through a corroded flame arrester, causing an internal explosion, multiple piping failures and a large fire that engulfed the workers. In its investigation report, the CSB concluded that a lack of hazard communication, inadequate safety training and no control of hot work contributed to the accident.

Chairman Merritt said, "This fatal accident that occurred in Florida should serve as a cautionary tale for the 25 other states that do not provide public employees with OSHA protections." This tragic accident, she added, "underscores the potentially grave dangers facing public employees who work with dangerous chemicals without workplace safety standards."

The CSB report noted that no Florida state laws or regulations exist to require municipalities to implement safe work practices or communicate chemical hazards to municipal employees. Florida is one of 26 states that have not adopted plans under the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act to provide OSHA coverage for public employees. Florida had a safety program for public workers but it was discontinued in 2000, six years before the accident.

The CSB is an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents. The agency's board members are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. CSB investigations look into all aspects of chemical accidents, including physical causes such as equipment failure as well as inadequacies in regulations, industry standards, and safety management systems.

The board does not issue citations or fines but does make safety recommendations to plants, industry organizations, labor groups and regulatory agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.

About the Author