It Pays to Tow the OSHA Line
Don’t Side-step Safety Violations You can’t rely on luck to keep your workplace safe, say health and safety consultants By Jason Dehart Originally published in the June/July 2010 issue of 850 Magazine
It started out as a nice accomplishment that was featured in the local newspaper. What followed was a little visit from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
In 1997, Architectural Specialties Trading Company — a commercial woodworking shop in Pensacola that does high-end work for hotels, sports arenas, casinos and courthouses — was featured in Inc. magazine’s list of the top 500 growth companies nationwide. As a way to commemorate the occasion, the Pensacola News Journal did a write-up on the company, complete with photos of the woodworking process. That’s when the trouble began.
“We actually posed the photos without the machines running and had the safety guards removed to show the wood that we were shaping,” said Tom Deagan, the shop’s safety coordinator. “It may have been random … (but) I have a suspicion that someone associated with OSHA saw the pictures in the newspaper and noticed the guards were not on — a serious violation if the machines were energized — because within a week or so we had an inspection.” The lesson learned? Stay safe at all times. And be proactive. Far too often, companies rely on hope to prevent accidents.
Deagan said the inspection compelled the company to rethink its procedures. “At the time, we did not have an active safety program,” he said. “We had a generic safety plan that we thought was all that we needed, but after the inspection we were made quite aware that there was a whole lot more involved in an OSHA-compliant safety program than what we had.” During the exit interview, the OSHA inspector told Deagan’s company about the health and safety consultation program offered by the (then) Florida Department of Labor’s Division of Safety. “We needed help in finding out all the safety programs and procedures that we were required to have,” he said. “We could have hired a safety consultation business to do the job for us, but we opted to give the state consultation a try. Our experience with the health and safety program has been nothing but positive.”
Workplace accidents cost U.S. companies more than $150 billion a year, but the true costs don’t end there, according to March Reeves, the safety director for Ajax Building Corporation, a large construction firm with projects throughout Florida and South Georgia that range in cost from $1 million to more than $700 million. “The real issue is the approximately 6,000 people who die each year in workplace accidents,” said Reeves, whose company also has benefited from safety consultations.
Ajax has worked for more than eight years with consultants from USF SafetyFlorida, the agency established at the University of South Florida that took over administration of the state safety-inspection service in 2000. The free, confidential and voluntary service is provided to small-business owners, especially those in hazardous occupations such as construction, manufacturing, landscaping and health care. The program is funded by OSHA and the Florida Workers’ Compensation Trust Fund. A dozen experts are on staff to handle inspections, but they don’t issue citations if they find something wrong.
“One of the great things about the health and safety program is that if they do find a violation, there are no fines against the company, unless the company chooses not to abate a serious violation,” Deagan said. “If that happens, the consultant is obligated to report the violation.” For Reeves’ company, the program gives its subcontractors — some of which are smaller companies without the resources to have full-time, dedicated safety teams — the resources to better manage safety. “More than anything, the consultation program helps us raise awareness of workplace safety with our subcontractors,” Reeves said. “The consultation program shows them the benefits of workplace safety and encourages them to improve upon what they have, and when they work safer it makes the whole site a safe environment.”
Mike Tartal, a USF SafetyFlorida consultant in the Tallahassee/Panhandle region, said that the costs of overlooking safety can be pretty high. “Right now fines can be significant, starting at $7,000 per incident,” he said. “The most serious violations have resulted in prosecution, and in some instances (around the nation) employers have been convicted of felonies and sent to jail. Usually that’s when an employee death is involved.” A workplace safety plan that is actively followed can lead to fewer workplace injuries, fewer workers’ compensation claims, reduced OSHA fines, higher productivity, increased morale, and the potential for job growth and profit. Deagan said his company has saved $50,000 in workers’ compensation premiums since becoming more actively engaged in monitoring safety issues. Having a clean record is vital in attracting business as well. “In our industry, we could not even bid on most of the projects that we want if we did not have our safety program in place,” he said. “The big projects all want copies of our safety program, and want to know our last three years of workers’ comp modifier rates as well as the last three years of our OSHA injury and illness rates, and if they are too high, then we will be dropped from their bid list.”
Having a plan in place is one thing. Having the mindset to use it also is necessary. Tartal said he and his colleagues find a wide variety of attitudes when it comes to job safety. “Some employers are proactive, and very health- and safety-conscious, and others seem to be kind of dragged into it,” he said. “Those are the ones that haven’t had an accident that has impacted them, and they often say, ‘I’ve been doing things like this for years, we’re safe, why worry, why should I do this.’ In reality, they aren’t really ‘safe,’ they’ve just been lucky so far.” Reeves said that construction sites in particular demand that employees be safety-conscious at all times. “You can never stop working on improving safety on a construction site,” he said. “There is always a task or work method that has to be analyzed to ensure all proper steps are being taken to guarantee worker safety.” Many small employers just aren’t aware of what OSHA requires, Tartal said. “I’m talking about small businesses that don’t have the resources to investigate the standards, implement the standards and apply them in the workplace,” he said. “So that’s where we can come in and help. We can provide employers with the information and advice they need to implement the required safety programs. We can help them implement safe work practices. Protecting your people in the long run helps protect your business.” Reeves said his company’s experience with the program has been “excellent” and recommends it. “They are a very valuable partner in our ongoing efforts to protect the men and women working on our projects,” he said.
Safety By The Numbers
Since it started in October 2000, USF SafetyFlorida has reached more than 2.5 million employees across Florida. In 2009, the program performed 770 safety and health consultations to 558 private industry companies, potentially affecting 63,079 employees. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that for 2008, there were 292,600 non-fatal occupational injuries and illnesses, and 290 fatalities, for all industries in Florida. There were 23 fatal accidents and 24,300 non-fatal accidents in the construction industry. In 2009, OSHA handed out citations to 5,403 Florida companies. More than $5.5 million in penalties were assessed.