Public works professions are some of the most dangerous jobs available, but some cities are working hard to mitigate these risks.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) tracks the rates of injuries and illnesses by occupation and sector – private industry, state government and local government. The organization found that while local government incidence rates have declined over the past three years, the public sector still reports higher rates of injuries and illnesses than private sector counterparts.

Incidence rates are calculated by the number of injuries and illnesses per 10,000 full-time employees, according to Matthew Dotson, an economist in the BLS Information Office.

According to figures collected in 2012, the latest year with data available, the most dangerous occupational groups and individual occupations for state and local government are:

Per occupational group (State Government):
1) Transportation and material moving occupations (839.9 incidents per 10,000 employees)
2) Healthcare support occupations (772.5)
3) Construction and extraction occupations (570.7)

Per individual occupation (State Government):
1) Bus and truck mechanics and diesel engine specialists (1,239.9)
2) Maids and housekeeping cleaners (780.7)
3) Nursing assistants (767.1)

Per occupational group (Local Government):
1) Transportation and material moving occupations (576.2)
2) Protective service occupations (481.6)
3) Healthcare support occupations (463.0)

Per individual occupation (Local Government):
1) Laborers and freight, stock material movers (1,093.1)
2) Bus drivers, transit and intercity (1,025.6)
3) Heavy and tractor trailer truck drivers (767.7)

But some cities are actively working to combat the safety risks associated with public works. Eric Solberg, the director of public works for Flagstaff, Ariz., says safety is his department’s primary concern.

Solberg’s department is broad in scope, with “public works” acting as an umbrella term covering the city’s cemetery, the local landfill, facilities maintenance, fleet services, parks and recreation, solid waste services, roadways and the sustainability and environmental management section. “For us, for public works, the gamut is a little bit of everything,” he says.

Because the department is so varied, the risks employees face are numerous. One of the biggest threats Solberg’s road workers face, he says, is distracted drivers injuring them while they are out in the field. Major concerns for facilities workers include falls and injuries resulting from cramped working conditions. Fleet mechanics are also at risk, as they work with dangerous machinery and tools.

To deal with the dangers, the department established a safety committee, with a representative from each section, to address various issues. The committee is made up of entirely of employees, who elect chairpersons. The body reports directly to Solberg.

“Every issue, every accident, anything that comes up – near misses – we have to go through that committee… on how do we handle it next time, what do we do better?” Solberg says.

Solberg shared an example of the committee in action. He said recently an employee was working on the cemetery caretaker’s facility and injured his hand on a piece of sheet metal. The committee asked the worker to bring in the tools he was using, which were found to be broken and unsuited for the job. The worker was also found to not be wearing gloves.

“[The committee] went back to the job hazard analysis (a document specific to a particular job, containing the risks associated with it) and asked, ‘What does it say; what do we have to add; how do we correct this?,’” Solberg says. The committee then sent out memos to all supervisors reminding them to ensure employees have the proper tools for the job – the tools needed to get the work done efficiently and safely.

This plays into a simple way Solberg says other public works departments can increase safety: by listening to employees. “We have good, dedicated employees who would do anything to get the job done,” he says. “I think it’s really up to supervision to not only appreciate that but to come forward and ask ‘What tools do you need… to do your job safely?’”

Listening is key for management, but training is invaluable to the safety of workers in the field. Pamela Leake, Goldsboro, N.C.’s acting public safety officer, says the city’s Safety and Training Program, an offshoot of the human resources department, handles the safety and training compliance for all city departments, including public works. 

Similar to Flagstaff, Goldsboro’s public works department is made up of various sections, each with its own set of challenges.

For each division, Leake says, “We schedule safety training, periodic reviews and also conduct worksite inspections to make sure [workers] are wearing the proper PPE (personal protective equipment), and that they stay abreast of the latest Hazcom rules and other OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) standards.” Depending on OSHA regulations and federal guidelines, Leake says regular training sessions are scheduled on cycles of 12 or 18 months.

Examples of training sessions offered, according to Leake, are fire extinguisher training, Hazcom standards, proper PPE usage, working in confined spaces, work zone safety and flagger training for road workers. She says the majority of these training programs are hands-on, interactive experiences. For example, the fire extinguisher training requires trainees to use an extinguisher to put out an actual fire.

Many of the training materials are provided by OSHA and the federal government; however, Leake says other local resources are also used. “The North Carolina Department of Labor – we’ve utilized a lot of their material, and we also have some [third party] vendors,” she says.

To further encourage safe practices, the program gives out gold and silver level awards for departmental sections that adhere closely to safety guidelines. This year’s gold-level winners were Goldsboro’s Fire Station #3 and the Public Works Garage.


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