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Illinois OSHA identifies safety issues for public works departments

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Public works departments – those state, county and municipal workers who keep the roads free of snow and ice, maintain emergency vehicles and perform other critical functions – often work with heavy machinery, and often in dangerous weather conditions.

The Illinois Occupational Health and Safety Administration is in charge of enforcing safety regulations for all state and local government employees in the state, and in a recent review, it found that public works departments face safety challenges.

Ben Noven, director of Illinois OSHA, said that the top five violations affecting municipal public works staff were:

Miscommunication about hazardous materials, including educating staff about the nature of the materials and how to safely use them

Lack of safety guards on machinery

Not disabling (for example, turning off the electrical connection) machinery that would harm an employee if they didn’t realize it was energized

Not keeping walking surfaces clean, dry and free of loose objects, and

Not having an emergency plan or not clearly communicating such a plan to all workers.

Noven said that OSHA seeks whenever possible to work with employers rather than sanction them.

“An employer or a worker has been doing something the same way for years, and nothing has happened, so they don’t see it as a problem,” Noven said. “They may not even realize it is a safety hazard.”

He added, though, that even seemingly small violations can lead to serious injuries, and public works employees have suffered on-the-job accidents that led to amputations, blindness and even death.

The agency is part of the Illinois Department of Labor.