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U.S. labour secretary Solis highlights construction hazards at safety show

By Mari-Len De Guzman
| www.cos-mag.com

SAN ANTONIO – The American Society of Safety Engineers kicked of its annual Professional Development Conference and Exposition in this city Monday with announcement from the U.S. Department of Labor of a “major construction safety initiative” in Texas that aims to prevent workplace injuries and fatalities.

In a press conference, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis told reporters that beginning in July, the department’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) will increase the number of inspectors in Texas in an effort to promote safety in the state’s construction industry.

“When these inspectors observe unsafe scaffolds, fall risks, trenches or other hazards, they are empowered to launch an immediate investigation,” Solis said. “As I have said since my first day on the job – the U.S. Department of Labor is back in the enforcement business.”

According to the department, Texas has the highest rate of on-the-job fatalities than any other state. In 2008 there were 67 fatalities, and in 2009 there have been 33. Solis also noted that in 2007 and 2008 more than 3,000 inspections were conducted by OSHA in the southeastern states.

Solis discussed the proposed department budget for the DOL for 2010 of $1.7 billion, which includes $50.6 million for OSHA, which will allow for the hiring of at least 130 more inspectors and increase the number of inspections by 10 per cent.

Addressing safety professionals at the event, Solis remarked, “Thank you all for the work that you do every day to protect workers as it is not easy, especially during these difficult economic times. I am also here to tell you that the President believes this government has responsibility to protect workers and protect them from unsafe workplaces.”

About 4,000 health, safety and environmental professionals attended the three-day ASSE event, which featured 225 educational sessions and 400 tradeshow exhibitors.

The show was not without Canadian content. Canadian OHS legal expert and COS columnist Norm Keith gave an overview of OHS legislations in Canada, in a session sponsored by the International Practice Specialty.

Keith, a partner at Toronto-based law firm Gowlings, talked in detail about the concept of internal responsibility system as the basis for all health and safety legislations in Canada.

“When you look at occupational health and safety statutes across Canada you’re going to see duties and responsibilities assigned to specific stakeholders in the organization,” Keith told conference attendees.

Keith also discussed the aspect of worker rights – right to participate, right to know and right to refuse unsafe work – that also embody Canadian OHS laws.

The Toronto lawyer also talked about the concept of due diligence defence. “The hard part of this defence is proving that you have taken all reasonable steps to prevent (workplace injury).”

Corrie Pitzer, chief executive officer at Burnaby, B.C.-based SAFEmap International, meanwhile discussed risk management in a session entitled, New Frontiers for Safety

Pitzer, a behavioural safety specialist, said safety messages should “inspire” people into action and should be simple, concrete, unexpected, credible and has a storyline.

He also talked about how innovation is key in health and safety management. “We tend to solve the wrong problems with great solution; that is the fallacy of prevention.”

Pitzer cited a recently passed legislation in British Columbia aimed at protecting lone, late-night workers at gas stations, by mandating pre-payment of gas during night times. The legislation came as a result of the death of a young attendant who was killed while trying to prevent gas theft at a gas station where he worked.

The problem with that solution is that while it did address one specific challenge for gasoline attendants, it might have also opened up these workers to new risks, including hold-up and robbery, Pitzer explained.

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