Michelle Newell is Plymouth’s first safety compliance officer for the Department of Public Works.

Adopted by private and public entities alike, a strong safety culture can prevent injuries, reduce operating exposures, and save money.

A strong safety culture is an organization’s shared perceptions, beliefs, values and attitudes that create a commitment to safety and an effort to minimize harm. This is often the foundation of a shared safety goal. In many industries, workplace safety is considered every employee’s responsibility.

In February 2019, a state law went into effect that applies federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards for workplace safety standards to municipal workers. The state law is overseen by the Department of Labor Standards.

OSHA requires employers to keep their workplace free of serious recognized hazards. The regulations are vast and spread across a variety of industry and workplace categories. The regulations run the gamut from fire prevention and evacuation strategies to toxic materials handling, safe driving, and proper blasting techniques.

Given the depth and breadth of knowledge required to meet OSHA standards, including reporting and training, some MIIA members opt to hire individuals to help them attain compliance and create safe workplaces.

Chelmsford’s broad view
Following a lengthy career as a safety consultant, Steven Cerven is now the municipal safety specialist in Chelmsford, where he has spent the last three years working with town employees to “make sure they go home in the same condition they came in.”

“Every employee has a moment of truth,” he said, describing the choice between taking an action that is safe or another that might be quicker but could get them into an unsafe situation. “As the safety specialist, I spend time getting to know the employees and earning their trust. They know I’m not here to be the safety police, I’m working with them to help keep them safe.”

His daily activities can range from checking on a trench project, to working with the Board of Health on blood-borne pathogen safety training, to examining a playground set or inspecting a roof.

“We have a plan to deal with OSHA requirements,” he said. “Then we learn and add to it. Employee training is also a big part of the job.”

Plymouth focuses on public works
In February 2021, Plymouth hired Michelle Newell as the town’s first safety compliance officer for the Department of Public Works. A 2016 graduate of Keene State College with a bachelor’s degree in occupational safety and health, Newell brought safety compliance experience from her previous jobs at MassPort and Feeney Brothers, a natural gas utility contractor.

“At first people thought I was the police,” she said, “and they were hesitant to work with me.”

But after talking with them and working on training efforts, she said, “Now it’s a total 180. They understand I have their back and am working to make sure they’re safe.”

Newell said her days are filled with ensuring job sites are OSHA-compliant. In the event of a workplace accident, she conducts a root cause investigation, alongside the COBRA Safety Committee, and follows-up with training. She said training employees on proper equipment handling, trenching, “competent person” (expertise and authority related to excavation and trenching safety), and other topics is a main aspect of her job.

Safety specialist benefits
Both Newell and Cerven list numerous benefits to having a person on staff whose sole focus is safety.

Cerven notes that a dedicated safety officer relieves another individual from serving a dual role. The continuous oversight and focus on safety means issues are identified and resolved — and nothing bad happens.

“People are people,” Cerven said. “Accidents are always waiting to happen, but with a safety specialist on board, there’s someone specifically focused on managing risk.”

OSHA standards are always being updated, Newell added, and without someone staying on top of the changes, a city or town runs the risk of noncompliance. She said she sees trends in workplace safety issues and makes recommendations for training sessions to prevent problems from recurring.

Both mentioned that a community that is proactive, rather than reactive, about safety saves money and protects the health of its workers. Employees also become more safety-conscious, and reach out before taking action to ensure that they’re working as safely as possible — creating that valuable workplace safety culture.

Hiring a safety officer is not a requirement in Massachusetts, but municipalities must be compliant with OSHA rules regardless.

To help its members, MIIA offers a Public Sector Safety and Health Fundamentals Certificate Program in Construction and General Industry through the OSHA Training Institute Education Center. MIIA members who participate in the 112.5-hour training become invaluable risk management resources to their communities. To date, 48 municipal employees across Massachusetts have been certified through the MIIA program.

To learn more about the MIIA training, visit www.emiia.org/risk-management-resources/osha-municipal-cert-programs. For more about the state’s updated law for public sector safety, visit www.mass.gov/service-details/learn-about-updated-law-for-public-sector-safety.

Written by Joyce McMahon, freelance writer