It took a big explosion and workers dying to get everyone's attention, but a state task force now says that Florida's experiment with voluntary safety and health standards for public employees is insufficient. The state needs to return to the days when state law protected worker safety.
In 1999, a Republican-led Legislature decided to release state and local governments from a legal regime of safety and health requirements for their workers. Dozens of worker safety compliance positions were eliminated as part of a larger reorganization that reflected the deregulatory spirit pervading Tallahassee.
In place of state law, then-Gov. Jeb Bush issued an executive order directing state agencies "to voluntarily comply" with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act's standards, and leaving cities and counties to decide for themselves what they needed to do. But no state resources were devoted to ensuring compliance or guiding safety efforts. The move was a wink and a nod toward protecting employees, and little more.
Then in 2006 a tragic explosion of methanol occurred at a wastewater treatment plant in Daytona Beach. Maintenance workers were using a cutting torch on a roof above a highly flammable methanol storage tank. Escaped vapors ignited, and the explosion and fire resulted in two deaths and one critical injury.
A federal investigation board issued a report in 2007 finding serious deficiencies with workplace safety practices at the plant. Well-known hazards associated with methanol had not been communicated to workers, and there were inadequate controls in place for "hot work" there.
In addition, the board found 33 more "chemical incidents" at Florida public facilities in the previous five years. "All of these incidents involved chemicals that would normally be included in an OSHA compliant hazard communications program," the report stated.
The investigative board went on to recommend that Florida impose safety standards on public sector employers. But rather than hop to it and bring the state's public employees back under a legal umbrella of safe work practices, the Legislature established a task force. Often, that's a way to bury an issue. The task force issues a report and its recommendations get shelved.
The Florida Public Task Force on Workplace Safety has now issued its majority report affirming the upshot of what the federal investigation board said: Florida needs legislation to require all public employers to comply with OSHA standards for general industry. The task force recommends that the state and local governments come into compliance within three years.
Public employees face the same hazards as those working in the private sector. They work around dangerous chemicals, handle heavy machinery and face a slew of potential workplace dangers. It is inconceivable that for more than eight years state law has not protected public employees the way federal law protects private sector workers.
Even in these tough fiscal times, this is one task force report that should not be brushed aside.