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Safety standards lag size, age of workers

Federal safety standards require that handrails support someone who weighs at least 170 pounds, but TECO Energy Inc. didn't need scales to realize today's employees are a lot bigger before equipping its plants with much stronger ones.

"The average age in our electric plants is 47 and they've been on the job 25 years," said Rosa Webster, a health and safety coordinator for the Tampa-based utility. "It's time the federal government adjust the standards to what people today look like and how they function."

People are taller. They are heavier. And as the baby boom generation ages into their 60s, it's expected they will continue working later in life. All that and soaring workers' compensation claims are exerting profound pressure to update state and federal occupational and safety standards.

Such issues were a recurring theme Monday as the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health staged a town hall meeting to develop its research agenda for the next 10 years. On the table is about $200-million a year in federal research money spent to deal with on-the-job injuries.

The hearing staged at the University of South Florida - the fifth of 13 nationally - focused on the needs of the retail and wholesale trade industries, which employ about 21 percent of the nation's work force.

"We are going to continue with our basic research, but we want to also focus on eight specific industrial sectors to see how they work and how we can make what we do better," said Paul Schulte, education and information division director for the institute, a wing of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Michael Wahl, southeast regional risk control director for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., echoed concerns raised by TECO from a retailer's perspective.

"With an aging work force that's more susceptible to soft-tissue injuries, we're already facing whether to adjust job assignments and safety training," Wahl said. "New benchmarks would help, especially in muscular/skeletal cases" that relate to the never-ending debate over who pays and how much for back injuries.

Several other speakers, who ranged from public health and safety experts and academics to industry consultants and corporate safety officers, targeted similar topics:

+ The largely unregulated mold and fungus removal business needs plenty of research and possibly more oversight. So, too, does the spread of allergic reactions to new chemical compounds affecting asthmatics, including household cleaners and the fumes from spray-on resins that are being used to protect everything from truck bedliners to garage floors and boats.

"We need a lot of basic research, but in Florida we have no good surveillance program to trace workplace conditions that aggravate asthma," said Stuart Brooks, director of the USF public health college's center for education and research.

Joan Watkins, occupational health and safety director at Tampa's University Community Hospital, said she recently reported a suspected case of an adverse reaction to Cavicide, a chemical commonly used by nurses to sterilize medical equipment.

"That stuff is everywhere," she said.

+ Migrant populations that hold an estimated 91 percent of the manual labor jobs in Florida agriculture are too frequently untrained in pesticide handling in their native language.

"They are mostly Hispanic and in need of training geared to someone with a fifth-grade education," said Gene McAvoy, a Hendry County Co-Operative Extension agent.

+ Hurricanes in Florida and the Gulf Coast underlined the need for a new understanding of how disasters change the workplace and job descriptions.

+ Government has slapped lower speed limits, barricades and doubled fines on drivers to better protect on-the-job road crews.

"But there is very little if any training of the workers themselves in how to work safely in such environments," said Jessica Bohan, a USF industrial safety specialist.

+ Because so many teenagers work retail jobs, safety standards and training materials should be written and spoken in ways that teens understand them, said Cameron Brooks, a senior at Plant High School in Tampa whose father, Stuart Brooks, helped stage the town meeting.