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Overall workplace fatalities down across Mississippi

Gulf Coast businesses see spate of on-the-job deaths

There has been a spate of on-the-job deaths on the Coast recently with three workers killed within a one-week period in early May.

Carl Sullivan, 55, Gautier, a journeyman outside machinist at Friede Goldman’s Offshore West shipyard, was thrown off scaffolding when a 630-pound block of steel fell, breaking his scaffold. Mississippi Power Company lineman Herman E. “Buddy” Yaeger, 55, Wiggins, who had been with the company for 29 years, was electrocuted while working on a power outage in the Wiggins area. And Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI) worker John Glenn Jackson, 34, Gautier, was struck by a car and killed while collecting garbage in Vancleave. Johnson had worked for BFI for about a month.

A spokesperson for Friede Goldman Offshore in Pascagoula said that the company’s preliminary investigation into the accident showed that no safety or OSHA regulations were broken. The spokesperson said workplace safety is stressed at Friede Goldman, and that statistically the company has one of the lowest accident rates in the industry.

MPC spokesman Kurt Bratigam said that prior to the fatality, the Coast division of the company had not had a lost time accident since February 1992, a total of more than 1.6 million combined injury-free work hours.

“Certainly this is a tragic accident, and an isolated incident, as well,” Bratigam said. “Our guys are very good at their jobs, and are well trained. Certainly we stress safety, and there is a lot of training involved for our employees both in power plants and on line crews. But this goes a long way to remind us how dangerous some of these jobs are, especially when people are working at night and under difficult conditions.”

BFI had no comment on their fatality, saying the incident is still under investigation.

Clyde Payne, area director for Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in Jackson, said there are ongoing investigations into all three recent Coast fatalities. OSHA averages about 40 fatality investigations in Mississippi per year.

Overall workplace fatalities in Mississippi have dropped in recent years. Total workplace fatalities have declined from a high of 128 in 1996 to 104 in fiscal 1997. Not all workplace facilities in the state are investigated by OSHA. For example, OSHA doesn’t investigate fatalities that involve self-employed and government workers, fatalities that are a result of workplace homicides, and automobile, airplane and boating fatalities.

Payne said many factors have gone into reducing the fatality rate.

“We’d like to take some credit in those improvements,” Payne said. “A lot of companies have made great progress. There is more awareness on the part of employers about the need for safety programs, and the cost advantages to reducing accidents. The cost of an accident is significant in terms of human suffering and financial loss to an employer.”

The census of occupational facilities shows the following number of facilities in Mississippi for the fiscal years listed: 1992, 123; 1993, 121; 1994, 126; 1995, 128; 1996, 103 and 1997, 104.

OSHA recently sent out letters to 12,500 employers nationwide who have above-average rates of injury and illness. Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin had the highest number of letters with an average of 1,000 each. Letters were sent out to 235 businesses in Mississippi. Sites selected for the special letters were based on the number of employees days reported lost to injury or illness.

“These employers must do better,” said Labor Secretary Alexis Herman. “Workers should not have to risk serious injury of illness or their lives for their livelihood.”

Many of the businesses receiving letters were nursing homes, which have one of the highest rates of injury in the U.S. Working in a nursing home is more dangerous than working in a coal mine or a steel mill. The most common problem is back injuries from lifting patients. Trucking companies and warehouses also have high rates of worker injuries. United Parcel Service, which was at the top of the list of companies receiving multiple OSHA notices, said that it has spent nearly $1 billion since 1995 on improving health and safety programs.

Payne said the recent OSHA letters are better targeted towards workplaces that need improvements. Previously OSHA would look at an entire industry with high rates of illness and injury instead of specific companies within that industry who had the highest accident rates.

“We didn’t have the ability to differentiate between people doing a good job, and those who were not,” he said. “For example, we would hear from a business that would say, ‘I’m doing a good job, but my competitors are cutting corners.’ So we have implemented a site-specific scheduling system as opposed to scheduling selected by industry. This allows us to target specific worksites rather than a whole industry.”

The letters from OSHA recommend that the employers take actions to improve safety. There is a possibility that some of the employers will be subject to an OSHA inspection.

Payne said the companies in Mississippi receiving the OSHA letters include food processing operations for poultry, catfish and hogs, shipbuilders, logging companies, and furniture manufacturers. Those kinds of industries are prominent in Mississippi, and have high injury rates.

Progress has been made reducing the number of job injuries and illnesses in Mississippi. But Payne said Mississippi is a Right to Work state, and trying to promote general health and safety standards for the workplace is unpopular in the business community. There are some specific standards for dealing with hazardous wastes. But, there is a lack of general standards for most industries.

Currently the labor shortages being seen in some parts of the state have raised safety concerns.

“Some employers are in the situation where they are pressed for labor,” Payne said. “It does affect safety in the workplace if there is a shortage of labor. You put inexperienced workers in a job, and put pressure on employees to work faster. They just want to make the boss happy, and take a shortcut that hurts. Fatigue plays a part in accidents if a lot of overtime is being worked.”

On the Coast some convenience store workers report that they are working 12-hour shifts, seven days per week. Others report commonly doing double shifts. Payne said there are few laws restricting the number of hours that can be worked in a week. He said employers and businesses are not receptive to those types of regulations.

Employers who want to improve workplace safety should be aware that OSHA has free consultation services available in Mississippi.

“We are here to assist business and industry in the state, and are an advocate of workplace safety,” Payne said. “We can show employers how they can save thousands of dollars in reduced worker’s compensation costs. It may make them have to slow down, but the money your avoid paying for an accident is very large. There are also a lot of hidden costs to accidents such as lost productivity.”

More information on OSHA regulations and available safety publications is available at the Web site www.osha.gov.

About Becky Gillette

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