Campus receives funds to make safety repairs

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As part of a systemwide effort to improve workplace safety, UC Berkeley received over $6 million dollars of surplus funds distributed to campuses from the University of California's Workers' Compensation Program.

Associate Vice Chancellor of Business and Administrative Services Ron Coley announced in a campuswide email Friday that the campus would receive $6.7 million in surplus funds from the 2009-10 fiscal year. The money will fund proposals from campus departments for safety improvements in the campus's "built environment" - encompassing repairs to stairways, lighting and alarm systems - according to Mark Freiberg, director of the campus's Office of Environment, Health and Safety.

"We believe the people working in the departments are the most familiar with the safety hazards they face each day," Freiberg said.

The Workers' Compensation Surplus Program, which began in 2005, distributes funds based in part on the success of each campus's efforts at reducing workplace injuries, according to Freiberg. Funding for the workers' compensation program comes from an "additive rate" or payroll tax levied by the university on each campus and calculated from the size of the campus's workforce.

Since 2005, the payroll tax has dropped over 50 percent, according to data from the campus Office of Environment, Health and Safety. Simultaneously, the size of the surplus from the workers' compensation fund has increased, according to a UC report on the program. UC Berkeley has remained a frontrunner in minimizing workplace injury and receiving a large portion of the surplus funds.

"We have many safety programs we've launched on campus, and we've worked with department safety coordinators," Freiberg said. "We've also worked to reduce the medical costs associated with the injuries when they do happen, to try to return employees back to work quicker."

Improvements made on campus have included repairs to laboratory equipment and bracing the contents of buildings to withstand seismic activity.

"The last one we did, the biggest, was working on redoing the fans at Hearst Mining," said Scott Shackleton, assistant dean for facilities and capital programs in the College of Engineering. "There's an air balance issue with the fans, and it affects the fire system."

After department proposals are submitted on May 31, they will be evaluated by a team composed of representatives from the campus offices of Environment, Health and Safety, Space Management and Capital Programs, the Department of Facilities Services, the Disability Management Center and a faculty representative. Ultimately, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau will make the final decision about which proposals to fund.

While improvements to building maintenance and equipment would ameliorate employees' safety, Liz Perlman, a lead organizer for American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299, said the primary cause of worker injuries was "skimping on staff." She said fewer safety inspections and the sparse availability of staff to perform repairs contribute to workplace accidents.

However, according to data from the Office of Environment, Health and Safety, the number of workplace injuries on campus has decreased since surplus-funded improvements have been implemented.

"This is one of the rare rays of sunshine in the budget this year," Freiberg said. "This money is coming back, and we're glad to have it."


Nina Brown covers higher education. Contact her at [email protected]

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