The American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) in a recent press statement applauds the Florida House Government Affairs Policy Committee for passing HB 1029, ASSE’s bill to provide basic occupational safety and health protection to public sector employees in Florida, by a vote of 7-0. This followed a tremendous effort by ASSE members who contacted their committee representatives to support the legislation, says ASSE. The vote also followed testimony by ASSE member Mark Friend, Ed.D, CSP, of Port Orange, FL, and it comes on the anniversary of the March 25, 1911, Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City. This workplace fire took the lives of 146 women unable to escape due to lack of safety precautions. The fire, it is said, also triggered the safety and health movement in the U.S.

HB 1029, sponsored by ASSE, will require Florida cities, counties, municipalities, school districts, state agencies and special districts to comply with U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards providing occupational safety and health protection for public sector workers. The 98-year-old ASSE has more than 32,000 occupational safety, health and environmental professional members located worldwide.

The need for this legislation grew out of mounting concern for government worker safety following the tragic 2006 explosion at the Daytona Beach municipal water treatment plant that killed two city workers and severely injured another. The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) investigation into the Daytona Beach explosion found Florida's lack of required occupational safety and health protections for its public sector employees was a direct cause of those deaths.

“Public-sector worker injuries are wasting our state’s most valuable resource — its work force— and cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars each year,” Friend testified in front of the committee today. “In 2007, according to the Florida Division of Workers’ Compensation, 35 public sector employees were killed on the job and more than 60,000 submitted workers’ compensation claims, resulting in benefits totaling more than a half a billion dollars. Medical costs alone exceeded $350 million.”

HB 1029 is a result of the Florida Public Task Force on Workplace Safety’s report to the state legislature and governor issued in December 2008. The report called for the state to require all Florida public employers to collect and retain injury and illness data as incidents occur, using the OSHA recordable criteria and form 300; that the Florida Division of Workers’ Compensation expand its annual report to include a “state-of-the-state” report covering all public entities — the report card should list each employer’s workers’ compensation claim costs, injury totals, injury incident rate per 100 employees and fatalities; the state to provide a confidential toll-free phone number for public employers and employees to ask questions, report perceived unsafe working conditions, and request materials and assistance; and, that the Division of Workers’ Compensation compile a list of professional safety resources to help public employers strengthen workplace safety programs.

“When the Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed by Congress in 1970, it assured ‘every working man and woman in the U.S. safe and healthful working conditions,’” Friend testified. “Unfortunately, the Act did not go far enough in fulfilling that assurance. States that do not have their own federally approved occupational safety and health plans, like Florida, are not required to provide their state, county and municipal workers with such coverage. That means that over one million state, county, and local government workers here in Florida do not receive the same workplace safety and health protections that all private-sector workers are given under federal law.”

ASSE members countrywide are concerned that an estimated 8.5 million public sector workers in 26 states and the District of Columbia do not currently receive the same federal level of workplace safety protections that all private sector workers are guaranteed by law. In Florida it is estimated that there are 195,968 state government employees and 782,242 local government employees.

“The American Society of Safety Engineers has pledged the support of its chapters and its nearly 1400 member safety, health and environmental (SH&E) professionals in the state of Florida to serve as a resource to support the government as they begin developing workable plans for their own entities,” Friend said. “This is echoed by the institution of higher education that I represent and, I suspect, others around the state.”