Free Safety Consultation Program Helps Businesses Reduce Injuries

As a senior risk control consultant with PMA Insurance in Tampa, Greg Crocetti says he and his clients have the same goal: No injuries. Fewer injuries and illnesses mean fewer claims and fewer losses, and ultimately lower workers' compensation premiums.

However, maintaining a safe workplace requires adherence to a complicated and complex mix of state and federal rules and regulations. To help his clients navigate the often-daunting federal environment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Crocetti regularly steers them to the University of South Florida's SafetyFlorida program, an on-site safety and health consultation service operated by the university's College of Public Health.

The program is Florida's official OSHA safety and health onsite consultation service for small businesses. Created by the OSHA Act of 1970, onsite consultation provides free and confidential advice to business owners throughout the U.S., giving priority to those in high-hazard industries such as construction, manufacturing and healthcare. OSHA cited 5,403 Florida businesses last year with violations, amounting to $5.5 million in fines. More than 75 percent of the violations were classified as serious. The agency wants those numbers to decline.

USF SafetyFlorida's mission is to help employers profit from workplace safety and to keep employees safe. During the 10 years it has been at the university, the program has conducted thousands of consultations statewide, helping businesses to identify potentially dangerous hazards and companies to examine their occupational safety and health management systems.

Free and Confidential

The program's 12 safety and health consultants and industrial hygienists throughout the state offer knowledgeable advice at worksites and help employers become more comfortable with OSHA standards and compliance. During a visit, the consultant reviews a business's written safety plans and OSHA injury record-keeping forms; conducts a thorough analysis of the worksite; identifies potential hazards; recommends improvements to remove any hazards; and provides education, training and assistance at the worksite -- all at no cost.

Because onsite consultation is voluntary, employers must request the service. While Crocetti says some clients are at first a bit leery about inviting the consultants onto their worksites, he recommends the program "any time and all the time. I want my clients to not fear OSHA," he says.

The good news about the consultation is that it is separate from OSHA enforcement inspections. "A consultant cannot issue citations or impose penalties if violations are found," said Charlene Vespi, USF SafetyFlorida's program director. "Instead, we provide guidance on how to correct hazards and follow up to ensure the hazard has been mitigated within a recommended time period." Often, hazards are corrected on the spot. This proactive stance to workplace safety is viewed favorably by OSHA.

There is risk when business owners take a reactive stance to workplace safety. "The 'hope theory' -- thinking and hoping an accident will never happen -- is a fallacy," Vespit said. "Accidents, even fatalities, happen every day."

OSHA's Perspective

Employers who request USF SafetyFlorida appreciate the extra set of eyes. The Orlando headquarters of Florida's Blood Centers (FBC), a not-for-profit blood processor and distributor that serves nearly 70 hospitals and health-care facilities throughout the state, was referred to onsite consultation by its workers' compensation carrier.

Teresa Nealer, FBC's safety and health manager, said management embraced the idea of consultation because safety is its "number one priority." Also, a more effective safety system could reduce workers' compensation experience modification rates and subsequently, premiums.

FBC scheduled its first consultation with USF SafetyFlorida in October 2009, and Nealer said the experience was a positive one. "We knew we had worked hard developing policies and procedures for our safety program. (The consultation) was nothing but good for us. It was a very positive experience and brought our safety program up to a new level."

This new level includes OSHA's prestigious Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program (SHARP) award, which the federal agency grants to companies with exemplary safety and health management systems. Mylene Kellerman, a USF SafetyFlorida industrial hygienist who recommended FBC for the SHARP program, assisted Nealer with minor hazards that employees "walked by every day." She also made suggestions for education and training efforts for its company employees. The result? FBC's injury rates dropped significantly and its experience modification rate fell 24 percent.

Another company, Architectural Specialties Trading Company in Pensacola, said it did not have a workplace safety system when it was referred to USF SafetyFlorida by an OSHA representative. Since then, the a specialty woodworking manufacturer has developed a safety culture, reduced its employee injuries, and saved more than $50,000 in premiums.

More Help From USF SafetyFlorida

USF SafetyFlorida offers other free safety resources including online accident tracking, record keeping, and safety plan writing programs. It also provides education and training presentations, safety training videos, brochures, and bilingual resources.

Of particular interest to many businesses is the safety plan writing offering. Written workplace safety plans are important documents, but they can be cumbersome and difficult to put together. To help in the process, USF SafetyFlorida created SafetyWriter, an online program that lets employers easily develop a customized safety plan specific to their industry.

SafetyWriter begins with a basic safety program. Employers can narrow their options and enter company-specific information to mold the plan to fit their business model. Furthermore, employers can select from a list of topics such as Lockout/Tagout, Confined Space and Personal Protective Equipment to include in their plan to meet specific OSHA requirements. The result is a document that can be saved and updated over time.

Pat Stark, a safety and health consultant with USF SafetyFlorida, said that while "SafetyWriter is a prototype, a template," it is not a company's safety program until the company tailors it to its own workplace, workforce and exposures. Stark recommends that top management add their own words in creating the safety plan "so it relates to their philosophy, their true beliefs."

Scott Bills, director of loss control at Lutgert Insurance in Naples, has recommended SafetyWriter to his clients for six years. "I learned about it during a 40-hour OSHA class," Bills said, referring to the USF OSHA Training Institute Education Center in Tampa, which offers safety training and education courses in classrooms throughout the state and online. "The program is very helpful with industry-specific policies and procedures," he said. "It assists employers with record keeping and hazard communication and educates them on what they need to do to be OSHA compliant. Also, customers appreciate getting a two percent credit on their workers' compensation policy for having a certified safety program."

To learn more about USF SafetyFlorida's SafetyWriter, visit www.safetywriter.com. Users must create a sign-on profile prior to developing a plan. For more information on USF SafetyFlorida, call 866-273-1105 or visit www.safetyflorida.usf.edu.

Kelly Garland is the communications manager of USF SafetyFlorida.

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