Workplace Safety a Concern for Some in Alabama

By TOM SMITH | December 8, 2011

It’s not uncommon for Troy Collett to feel like he’s playing a game of dodge cars when he’s making a delivery in downtown Florence, Alabama.

“I’ve felt the exhaust off the tailpipes (of the cars) many times,” said Collett, a driver and delivery man for Shoals Distributing. “And there’s no telling how many times I’ve almost been hit by mirrors off a car or truck.

“I put out orange cones, but all they are good for is an early warning system. I hear the cars when they hit the cones and I know I’ve got about a second to get out of the way or get hit.”

Truck driving and delivery are among the most dangerous jobs not only in the Shoals, but nationwide. A study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes more truck drivers and delivery men die on the job than any other vocation. Last year, there were 683 truck drivers or delivery men killed on the job.

Cotton Johnson, manager of Shoals Distributing, said because Collett’s route is in the downtown area of Florence, he doesn’t have a choice but to park in the middle of the street and roll the cases of beer and kegs into the businesses he services.

“There’s just a lot of heavy traffic downtown,” Johnson said. “We show the drivers safety films and try to make sure they pay attention to the road and what is in front of them at all times. And we talk about safety virtually in almost every meeting we have.

“But anytime you park in the middle of the street to unload and deliver, there are concerns, and the delivery people have to pay attention and be careful.”

Other most dangerous occupations listed in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ study include commercial fishing, mining and mining machine operation, logging, pilots, farming/ranching, roofing, sanitation work and law enforcement.

According to the report, an average of 12 workers die on the job every day. In 2010, the study showed 4,547 people died on the job, only four less than in 2009, but more than 800 down from 2008 when 5,214 people were killed in job-related accidents.

“As a society as a whole, we’re changing our ways we look at safety on the job,” said Brett Bendall, a certified safety professional with the Alabama Technology Network at Northwest-Shoals Community College. “Look at seat belts. Through tests, we saw how wearing seat belts saved lives. We see how it saves lives and it has become a part of our culture to buckle up.”

He said the same thing has been happening in job safety.

“People are more aware and are trying to be more proactive about safety to prevent something from happening rather than reacting after an accident has happened.”

Mark Henderson has been in the roofing business one way or another for 50 years, following in his grandfather’s footsteps. For the past 20 years, Henderson has owned his own company.

“There are a lot of different things we do now to make sure the workers are safe when they go on the roof,” Henderson said. “There are special shoes with grips, sponge cushions and safety harnesses.

“You don’t just start up a ladder, get on a roof and start putting on a roof anymore. There are a lot of different things to do to be safer. We all hope we’ve gotten a little smarter over the years.”

Henderson said satellite imaging is even used in making estimates on houses.

“It’s great, especially in situations where you’ve got a two- to three-story house and it’s sitting way up on a bluff. And when you do an estimate, you usually don’t have all that safety gear with you.

“So, you can take the satellite image and see the actual size of the roof, how much material will be needed and estimate the cost. All that without the threat of having to climb on the roof.”

Bendall said certain industries are more hazardous by nature of the job.

“We have to spend more time in recognizing the hazards,” he said. “When we spend time recognizing the hazards, then we can evaluate the risk level. If we reduce the risk level (of a job) we can reduce the injury level.”

Brian Bragwell, of Belgreen, is a third-generation logger. He said technology has helped improve the safety of his profession through the years.

“When my grandfather started it was a chain saw and mule,” he said. “With advancements in equipment and technology, we don’t have to do it that way anymore.

“Most of the operations now are all mechanically done. Some still have a man on the ground with a chain saw, but not much.”

Bragwell said when he first started in the 1990s, loggers did most of the cutting with chain saws.

“We still have someone with a chain saw trimming limbs, but the equipment has gotten better and you can just do more and do it quicker and safer with the machines.”

Bragwell, who began his own business in 2004, said the biggest danger now is from falling limbs from a tree that could crash on someone on the ground.

“But we preach safety all the time. And every logger in Alabama is required to have someone trained on safety issues,” he said. “When I first started, we didn’t wear hard hats, chaps or safety glasses. Safety is a big issue now. We don’t work without those safety items.”

Bendall said overall job safety has improved in the U.S.

“There is more education about safety, there are more safety methods in place and equipment is safer now than before.

“It’s has gotten better as a whole, but there are still huge opportunities for improvement as we try to be proactive about safety.”

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