BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County utility workers have some of the dirtiest jobs.
Some days they might be shoulder-deep in a hole full of raw sewage bubbling up from a broken pipe. The next day they might be shoveling piles of the sludge that's left over once sewage has been treated.
The crews have the gear they need to keep themselves safe in every messy circumstance, from gloves and protective clothing to gas detectors and framework to shore up deep holes they must dig.
But workers report that use of much of that gear is discouraged. In fact, workers have had their manhood questioned by their bosses if they reached for the safety equipment.
When they tried to protect themselves, "somebody would scream over that you're a (sissy)," former utility worker Floyd Moore recently told investigators. "But you know, it was our job and nobody enjoys getting feces on their hands."
Workers were told that all of the equipment was optional. Not even hard hats were required when working under heavy equipment.
The news came as a surprise to Utilities Department director Joseph Stapf when he helped interview Moore and other utilities workers last month in connection with charges of racial harassment. The interviews not only confirmed that employees had been harassed, but also disclosed a litany of other problems in the workplace that Stapf said he will explore and try to fix.
He learned that basic work safety protocol often has not been followed, that crews sometimes dumped raw sewage and sludge in improper places and that some employees perceived that they were given the least desirable jobs if they raised a concern about anything, crossed their crew leaders for any reason or simply took an earned day of vacation.
On the racial harassment issue, an independent counsel urged the county to take all reasonable steps to "cleanse … (the) work environment of racial hostility." The report goes on to make sure that utilities workers know that retaliation against the worker who initially brought the complaint, Jason Booker, would not be tolerated.
One of Booker's supervisors, Mike Smith, was slapped with a 10-day suspension without pay, but he instead resigned. Another worker, Will Wilson, got three days of unpaid suspension. Employee Darrell Rose received a written reprimand.
All three were also ordered to attend diversity sensitivity training. In fact, all county workers have already been through such training or will go through it before the end of the month.
At the Utilities Department level, assistant director Jesse Goodwin has been meeting with workers individually or several at a time to deliver the message that "we are going to conduct ourselves in the way we're supposed to."
He also said he wants them to know that just because there were two or three people who behaved badly, the entire department shouldn't be painted with the same brush.
"This is a good group of people here," he said.
The director said he expects that the education, the training and the discussion to change the atmosphere in the department will take some time. As far as the other problems the harassment investigation revealed, he expects quicker solutions.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is looking into whether the county followed proper procedures dumping sewage and sludge in places such as drainage retention ponds, along the side of the road and on the ground at the Hernando Beach wastewater plant, which is being dismantled.
Stapf will take his cue from that agency in deciding what to do next on that issue.
He said he finds no excuse for utility workers to put themselves at risk by not using the safety equipment provided for them.
"The first thing that I've told everybody is that I do not believe the Board of County Commissioners or residents of Hernando County who elected them want or are paying us to work unsafely," he said.
In some cases, donning the protective gear might cut down on a crew's efficiency or delay completion of a job. But Stapf said that didn't matter.
"That's what you have to do to be safe," he said.
Stapf, who came to the Hernando Utilities Department in mid January, worked previously in places where unions represented workers. They often made a big deal out of worker safety and complained when private contractors could do the work cheaper, in part because of lax enforcement of safety protocols.
"Any time there's a piece of equipment lifting or excavating above you, you should be wearing a hard hat," Stapf said. "Whenever you're on a construction site, wear a hard hat. … A hard hat is considered the safety string around your finger."
Gas detectors are also a must in making sure workers are safe before entering a confined space.
That said, Stapf also acknowledged that, in Florida, hot, heavy gear might be unpleasant to wear. But he plans to develop procedures for the staff to follow to keep them safe and to meet federal guidelines.
Another workplace concern identified by employees was the perception that job assignments were handed out to punish workers who displeased supervisors.
"If you go against the grain, you're getting bad jobs all the time," Booker told investigators. "We call it in work, within our wastewater collections, we call it being on the s--- list. And if you're on that list, you're going to stay on that list."
"Job assignments being meted out as punishment, that's not proper," Stapf said.
But if the jobs were made based on who could best do the jobs or because of seniority, then Stapf said he didn't see a problem.
"The least senior employees will wind up with the least enjoyable jobs," he said. "There are two sides to that issue, and I'm still examining that yet."
Barbara Behrendt can be reached
or (352) 848-1434.