Sarasota and Manatee counties are growing by leaps and bounds. With that growth comes an expanding workforce in need of proper training and equipment to prevent accidents.

"The demand for labor is so high that unskilled and untrained workers are accepting positions they normally may not be in," says Donald Lee Bingham, executive director of the Manatee County Safety Council. "Anytime you have untrained or minimum-skilled people doing a job that requires a higher level than they're capable of, you have the potential for accidents."

There is some good news, though. "What I've seen over the years is companies taking a harder look at safety in the workplace," says David Simmons, president of Diversified Construction Safety and the Suncoast Chapter of the American Society of Safety Engineers. He points to rising insurance premiums, outreach efforts by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and a desire to keep on schedule as some of the reasons behind the interest.

"Job growth and the expanding economy do not have to equate to more accidents," says Robert Nesbit, program manager of the University of South Florida's OSHA Training Institute Education Center. "We feel that with good training and good employer involvement the area can have both-safe work sites and a growing economy at the same time."

BY THE NUMBERS

In Florida, 422 fatal work injuries were recorded in 2004, up from 347 in 2003. The top two causes were transportation incidents (198 fatalities) and falls (75 fatalities).

Workplace fatalities have also been on the rise in the 20 counties (including Sarasota and Manatee) covered by OSHA's Tampa-area office. In the 2001 fiscal year the office investigated 45 workplace fatalities. In 2005 it investigated 70, of which 61 percent were construction related. According to Les Grove, area director of OSHA's Tampa-area office, fatalities typically occurred as a result of the four most frequent workplace incidents: falls, electrocution, getting struck by something and getting caught in something.

One trend people are watching locally is the rate of injury among non-English-speaking workers. Thirty-four percent of the 70 fatalities investigated by OSHA's Tampa-area office in fiscal year 2005 involved Hispanic or Latino workers. It's still not clear whether a language barrier contributes to the number of accidents or whether it's simply a result of more foreign-born workers entering the workforce.

Age is another factor. Longtime workers can sometimes become complacent, which opens them up to accidents. "If you are used to stepping over that cord every time you walk into your office, you make that a habit and you don't see it anymore," says Peter Straw, executive director of the Sarasota-Manatee Manufacturers Association. And as veteran employees age, they're not able to lift as much. Almost half of the state's workplace fatalities in 2004 occurred among workers age 45 or older-precisely those workers to whom new hires tend to look for guidance. "Younger workers coming in watch older workers and pick up some of their bad habits, and that's what we're trying to change," says Simmons.

THE LOCAL PICTURE

Construction is big business in Southwest Florida, so it's not surprising that many workplace accidents occur in this field. But they also occur in manufacturing, agriculture and other industries. For example, in 2002 one member of a six-man crew was killed while working on a Sarasota County sewer project in Nokomis. OSHA found that the project's contractor, E.T. MacKenzie of Florida Inc., had knowingly allowed workers to enter a confined space at a construction site without proper training on hazard recognition and protection. It fined the company $49,000 and levied an additional $19,700 in fines for five other safety violations.

In the past year or so, OSHA's local office has investigated four workplace fatalities in Sarasota County and two in Manatee. In one case, an employee installing fascia fell off a three-story residence due to an improper scaffolding system. In another case, a construction worker was fatally injured when he fell from a metal folding chair on which he was standing to change a light bulb. A Punta Gorda construction worker died when he fell between a truck and a trailer and was dragged 83 feet.

Sometimes major accidents serve as a wake-up call. "Every time you have a high-profile accident, it makes people stop and think about what they're doing and how something like that could happen to them," says Nesbit. "Behind the scenes, there are a lot of companies we work with that are working to prevent those kinds of high-profile accidents. They deserve a pat on the back."

According to Greg Glass, who oversees the safety programs at Sun Hydraulics, manufacturer of screw-in hydraulic cartridge valves and manifolds, workplace injuries and accidents have "definitely been on a downward trend over the last three or four years because of some proactive steps we took." Every Wednesday, workers can get a 20-minute massage for just $5. The company also offers twice-daily stretching sessions and twice-weekly visits from occupational therapists, all of which helps cut down on problems like carpal tunnel syndrome and back injuries.

An employee-led safety committee meets at each Sun Hydraulics facility once a month to determine if any proactive steps need to be taken to improve safety. "If it finds something that needs to be fixed to prevent an accident, that's what happens," says Glass.

SAFETY PAYS

Safety also impacts a firm's bottom line. Accidents can cost companies thousands of dollars, even hundreds of thousands, after factoring in everything from workers' compensation payouts to OSHA penalties to training for temporary replacement workers. "There's a lot more involved than just the medical costs of the injured employees," says Grove.

From cleanup costs to production delays, the hidden costs of every accident are tremendous, says Nesbit. Companies may find themselves dealing with a long, drawn-out legal battle or with psychological problems among workers who witness an injury or fatality. The indirect costs resulting from an injury or fatality can range from one to 20 times the direct cost. "It's more effective to have a good safety training program from the beginning, and it's a lot more productive," Nesbit says.

HOW TO IMPROVE

OSHA should be the first place companies turn for information on current safety regulations as well as assistance with compliance issues.

According to Grove, companies should develop and implement an effective safety program that includes four elements: work-site analysis, hazard prevention and control, safety and health training, and management commitment and employee involvement. "You need upper-management commitment to have an effective safety and health program that flows down to the workers," says Grove.

Workers must have a clear idea of what's expected of them, and safety rules and regulations should always be enforced. "Workers need to know the consequences if they don't follow the program," says Simmons. That could mean everything from sending them home for a couple of days to firing employees who refuse to follow procedures.

But that's just the beginning. "The way we look at the OSHA standards, they're minimum criteria for the employer to follow," says Nesbit. "We expect most employers to go well beyond the OSHA standards for their people."

USF's OSHA Training Institute Education Center is one of 20 in the United States and offers courses for businesses in manufacturing, construction and general industry to learn how to develop safety programs, properly use equipment and effectively train employees.

Another resource is the USF SafetyFlorida consultation program, a free service that helps companies identify and correct potential workplace hazards. "We're trying to build a trust with the employers to allow us to come in and explain to them what kinds of training and education can be offered to their employees," says associate director Charlene Vespi. "We like to help employers understand that workers' comp costs and injuries have an impact on their bottom line."

Training is also key. "Every piece of equipment in every manufacturing operation is getting more technically sophisticated," says Straw. "It's imperative that employees be well versed in the proper techniques on how to use equipment."

According to Grove, when the Tampa-area OSHA office investigates a workplace fatality it often ends up citing companies for the specific safety violation that led to the accident and for improper employee training. If they had received training, "the accident probably wouldn't have happened," he says.

It's important to have training materials and information available for Spanish-speaking and other non-English-speaking employees. Christopher Stubenberg, owner of Bradenton-based FasTrac Languages, offers Spanish courses for supervisors and managers, at Manatee Community College's Lakewood Ranch campus and on-site at local companies. "People don't have to worry about grammar, conjugating verbs or vocabulary that's not related [to their industry], which means it's attainable," he says. "As long as you can say something and add the right gesture, you get the idea across and solve the problem."

And finally, companies need to create an environment where workers feel comfortable discussing safety issues and suggesting solutions. "Workers need to hear the 'atta boys,' to get some positive feedback," says Simmons. "And when you do have a problem, you need to communicate with workers what the problem is and how it can be prevented."

SAFETY STATS

Total fatal work injuries recorded nationwide in 2004: 5,703

Rate at which fatal work injuries occurred in 2004: 4.1 per 100,000 workers

Total fatal work injuries recorded in Florida in 2004: 422

Total fatal work injuries recorded in Florida in 2003: 347

CAUSES OF FATAL WORK INJURIES NATIONWIDE IN 2004

Transportation incidents: 2,460

Contact with objects and equipment: 1,004

Falls: 815

Assaults and violent acts: 795

Exposure to harmful substances and environments: 459

Fires and explosions: 159

CAUSES OF FATAL WORK INJURIES IN FLORIDA IN 2004

Transportation incidents: 198

Falls: 75

Assaults and violent acts: 58

Contact with objects and equipment: 44

Exposure to harmful substances and environments: 35

Fires and explosions: 12

FATAL WORK INJURIES IN SELECTED INDUSTRIES NATIONWIDE IN 2004

Construction: 1,224

Transportation and warehousing: 829

Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting: 659

Government: 526

Manufacturing: 459

FATAL WORK INJURIES IN SELECTED INDUSTRIES IN FLORIDA IN 2004

Construction: 115

Trade, transportation and utilities: 102

Professional and business services: 63

Natural resources and mining: 33

Leisure and hospitality: 17

AVERAGE ECONOMIC COST PER FATALITY, BY CLASS OF INJURY, 2003

Home injuries: $4.1 million

Public nonmotor-vehicle injuries: $4.5 million

Work injuries, without uninsured employer costs: $31.7 million

Work injuries, with uninsured employer costs: $34.7 million

SOURCE: Bureau of Labor Statistics' 2004 census of fatal occupational injuries and National Safety Council's Estimating the Costs of Unintentional Injuries, 2003 bulletin.

GETTING HELP

The following places are good sources of information about workplace safety:

Occupational Safety and Health Administration

(813) 626-1177 (Tampa-area office)

www.osha.gov

USF SafetyFlorida and USF OSHA Training Institute

(866) 273-1105

www.usfsafetyflorida.com

Diversified Construction Safety Inc.

(941) 915-6775

www.diversifiedconstructionsafety.com

Suncoast Chapter of the American Society of Safety Engineers

http://suncoast.asse.org

Manatee County Safety Council

(941) 747-4498

www.manateetrafficsafety.com

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