Chain of Thought

Safety can't be Mailed In

Government employers might be able to learn a thing or two about safety practices from private sector employers. According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics Illness and injury rates for public sector workers overall are at 5.7 cases for every 100 workers, which is more than 60 percent higher than the private sector rate.

This dismal record might be even worse, considering the poor record keeping OSHA cited in its recent press release:

“We are concerned with poor record-keeping practices and programs that discourage workers from reporting injuries and illnesses,” it stated. “That's why OSHA is working hard to ensure the completeness and accuracy of these data, which are compiled by the nation's employers.”

The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is one of the biggest offenders where reporting is concerned. Earlier this year OSHA announced that it received more than 170 worker complaints alleging ergonomic hazards at USPS Processing and Distribution Centers (P&DCs) nationwide. While investigating those ergonomic hazards, OSHA found numerous problems with USPS practices regarding OSHA's injury and illness recordkeeping requirements. Eight of the ten inspections resulted in the issuance of citations for recordkeeping violations.

“OSHA believes that under-recording of injuries and illnesses may be a pervasive problem at the USPS,” wrote David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for Occupational Safety and Health. “The percentage of the inspected facilities with violations is indicative of a systemic failure by the USPS in properly maintaining the OSHA Log of Work-Related Injuries and Illnesses.”

That's scary stuff, considering the other kinds of violations OSHA is finding at USPS sites. For example, OSHA cited a U.S. Postal Service site in West Palm Beach, Fla., for eight alleged safety violations following a November 2010 inspection. Proposed penalties totaled $164,200. Six repeat violations included failing to appropriately mark aisles on the loading dock where forklifts were operating; exposing employees to being struck by the forklifts; allowing employees on the loading dock to operate a dumper at the edge of the dock without fall protection; exposing them to a fall of 50 inches; blocking aisles with mail cages; preventing employees from quickly evacuating in case of a fire; exposing workers to fall and electrical hazards by requiring them to climb a ladder and reach over with a wooden pole in order to use disconnect switches for battery chargers; incorrectly labeling containers used to store waste oil and solvents in the battery and oil waste room; and failing to perform monthly inspections with certification records of the hoist chain on the overhead crane that moved batteries weighing up to 3,000 pounds.

Two serious violations with proposed penalties of $9,000 included requiring forklifts to turn and travel in areas on the loading dock that were not kept clear of mail carts, thus exposing workers to being struck by the forklifts, and obstructing the exit route near the loading dock with boxes and equipment, decreasing the capacity of the exit route in case of evacuation. Serious means there is substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known.

Cindy Coe, OSHA's regional administrator in Atlanta, issued the following public tongue-lashing:

"Blocking aisles and placing workers in hazardous situations where they may be struck by a forklift are dangers that should have been identified and corrected by management without waiting for an OSHA inspection. The Postal Service has been cited by OSHA at other locations for these same violations, and we will not tolerate this type of disregard for employees' safety and health."

These are problems that have come to the surface. Who knows how many safety violations are festering deep within the system. To be fair, the same can be said of the private sector. However, any service funded by taxpayer dollars gives all U.S. citizens an interest in the effort to see that USPS cleans up its safety record. Maybe cutting Saturday mail service would be a good start.

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