|By Sherry Halbrook|
Inspectors need safer equipment to keep workers, public safe
State services are so vast, many layered and comprehensive that it’s understandable when people simply take for them granted without even stopping to mentally identify what they are. Sometimes our lives hinge on those “invisible” services and the PEF members who provide them.
That might be said of members working at the state Labor Department in its unit that protects public employee safety and health (PESHH). And when they protect the safety and health of public employees, that function may also be protecting the public.
For instance, PESH inspectors – who are PEF members – inspect the trains operated by the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority), which include Metro North, NYC Transit and the Long Island Railroad and carry millions of New Yorkers and visitors every day. The DOL safety inspections they do protect both the MTA employees and the traveling public.
PEF Division 245 steward Michael Marquez is one of those inspectors and he is working through the joint PEF-DOL Health and Safety Committee to overcome a stumbling block that is preventing DOL inspectors from inspecting those MTA trains..
It’s an equipment issue. The MTA has its own safety policies and one of them requires people accessing the machinery to wear “five-point break away” safety vests that will break loose if they get caught on a lever or other part of machinery. That’s to prevent someone getting entangled in the machinery and being injured or killed if the machinery is moving.
The PESH inspectors wear a different kind of vest that does not qualify under the MTA’s five-point break away standard, and MTA officials will not allow the PESH inspectors to inspect the machinery without them.
The MTA also requires anyone accessing that equipment to have completed specialized safety training.
While the inspections are on hold, Marquez and the other inspectors worry that delays are risky.
This potentially dangerous situation brings to mind Ben Franklin’s recounting of a centuries old tale of how the fate of many can hinge on a single tiny problem. In his “Poor Richard’s Almanac” Franklin tells us of a battle lost:
“For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For the want of a horse the rider was lost,
For the want of a rider the battle was lost,
For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.”
These days, we might call that a perfect storm. It’s a storm Marquez and other PESH inspectors want to avoid, and the sooner the better. So far, no one has been injured, but for these safety-focused professionals, the potential danger weighs on them.
Another issue that Marquez is raising through the joint committee is a potentially dangerous shortcoming associated with the flashlights issued to the inspectors. The flashlights provide enough light, but they are not designed to be safe when encountering natural gas leaks or other hazardous atmospheric conditions where even a tiny electrical spark from switching on a flashlight could trigger an explosion.
The DOL has already begun to address the flashlight problem by issuing safer replacements for its staff in the New York City area, but Marquez is urging the agency to move quickly to provide those safer replacements to staff statewide.
The PESH inspectors are not the only PEF members doing safety inspections for the DOL. PESH is one of several bureaus within DOL’s Division of Safety and Health. The other bureaus include: Asbestos Control; Industry Inspection; Onsite Consultation; Boiler Safety; and Mine Safety.
There is one other serious situation that Marquez and the other Division 245 officers and stewards constantly press the agency to resolve: understaffing.
Not having enough people to do the job is a major stressor familiar to nearly every PEF member at every agency. And they can relate when Marquez says, “It wears the employees down.
“It’s been a big issue for us since 2017,” he said. “It took a long time, but they finally hired one more inspector in New York City and one in Albany.”
Ultimately, it takes a full staff of fully trained professional inspectors with the right equipment to do this work on which everyone depends.
“If you don’t have the inspectors, or they don’t’ have the right equipment,” Marquez said, “you can’t inspect.”
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