Two worker advocacy groups say that, for 10 years, Wyoming and industry leaders have failed to take the carnage of workplace fatalities seriously, and they’re urging the state to use its “legal power and moral authority” to force immediate changes on the ground.
“It’s high time that state government and the Legislature quit playing games with the lives of workers in Wyoming,” Wyoming State AFL-CIO executive secretary Kim Floyd said in a prepared statement on Friday.
“Eight years of being worse or second-worst in death-on-the-job is proof that there’s a problem in Wyoming that needs to be remedied,” Floyd added. “They need to step up to the plate.”
Wyoming AFL-CIO and the Spence Association For Employee Rights (SAFER) issued the joint press release in reaction to a recent report by Wyoming’s occupational epidemiologist Timothy Ryan. After 16 months on the job, Ryan submitted a 9-page “interoffice memorandum” to Gov. Matt Mead on December 19 detailing his analysis of Wyoming’s workplace fatality data. Ryan then resigned to take a job with a safety consultant in Cheyenne.
Ryan has declined to comment since his resignation.
According to the report, one Wyoming worker was killed on the job every 10 days for the past 10 years. On a per-worker basis, no other state in the nation killed more workers for a nine-year period. In 2007, the Cowboy State’s workplace fatality rate was 17.1 per 100,000 workers — more than four times the national average.
The reason for this persistent tragedy? “Safety occurs as an afterthought,” Ryan wrote in the report.
Ryan was hired by the state in 2010 to fill-in the many missing gaps in workplace fatality data, to determine root causes, and recommend a strategy to emulate Alaska’s successful effort in addressing its workplace fatality problem. After analyzing 17 years of occupational fatality data and speaking with “hundreds” of employees in the state, Ryan said the underlying cause of Wyoming’s apparent lack of a “culture of safety” boiled down to four points:
— There is a breakdown in communication between the upper management, supervisors, and employees regarding safety.
— “Often the safety training that we receive is not enforced on the worksite.”
— Employees are told to “get the job done” and safety protocol and rules are not enforced, resulting in injuries and fatalities.
— On any one job-site, there can be a wide range in the safety standards.
And Ryan’s recommendations:
— Organize and develop continuity of ongoing efforts.
— Develop data monitoring system for the collection and timely analysis of occupational data.
— Promote OSHA courtesy inspections.
— Support efforts by industry to develop, monitor and enforce safety standards and practices.
Based on Wyoming’s past performance, families could expect to see nearly three dozen workers killed this year. Yet neither Gov. Mead or the Legislature have announced plans for any immediate action. And that has drawn the ire of worker advocates.
“Another year has passed but Dr. Ryan’s report offers only more of the same palliatives, calling for continuing data collection and monitoring, along with more encouragement of industry efforts to reform itself – efforts that industry itself admits have failed,” Wyoming AFL-CIO and SAFER wrote in the joint press release.
One of Ryan’s recommendations is to encourage more companies to take advantage of free “courtesy inspections” provided by the Wyoming Occupational Safety and Health Administration — a program that essentially promises employers they will not be issued citations for violations. Only 2 percent of Wyoming’s employers take part in the program each year, yet even at that rate Wyoming OSHA is so under-staffed that it takes several months to respond to a request for a courtesy inspection.
J.D. Danni of Wyoming OSHA told WyoFile that his agency cannot currently meet Ryan’s recommendation to provide courtesy inspections in a more timely manner. However, Wyoming Department of Workforce Services director Joan Evans added that if Gov. Mead determines that more courtesy inspections are a priority, the state would re-arrange resources to accomplish the goal.
Still, there are eight OSHA inspectors in Wyoming, giving the agency an inspection rate capability of just one onsite inspection every 60 years.
Worker advocates say a weak OSHA presence is just one example of Wyoming’s persistent failure to ensure safe workplaces.
“That Wyoming lacks a strong culture of safety should be obvious to anybody familiar with our State’s abhorrent workplace safety record,” Mark Aronowitz, lead attorney for the Spence Association For Employee Rights, said in a prepared statement.
“What we urgently need is a renewed commitment to safety with on-the-ground changes, from the highest levels of our state government down to individual work sites,” Aronowitz added.
Wyoming AFL-CIO and the Spence Association For Employee Rights said they will also send letters to lawmakers and to Gov. Mead urging them to implement four recommendations:
— Empower OSHA, enabling it to hire more inspectors to not only increase courtesy inspections, but to conduct both scheduled and surprise inspections and subsequently fine and penalize companies violating safety laws. Mandatory inspections should be required following any accident requiring hospitalization;
— Direct OSHA to determine why Wyoming mines, where the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) regulates safety, have significantly better safety records than other hazardous industries;
— Increase penalties and fines for employers and employees who discourage reporting of injuries to avoid increases in Workers Compensation premiums, to protect safety bonuses, or for any other reason;
— Make company injury records public. MSHA does this. General contractors, worksite owners, and workers, especially those working in ultra and extra hazardous industries, deserve to know whether their sub-contractors, independent contractors, and employers have instilled or rejected a culture of safety.
As for the persistency of the problem, Aronowitz told WyoFile in a phone interview, “Either there’s been a lack of imagination or lack of a sense of urgency at almost all levels of the public and private sector. We’ve spent years with interim studies, a workplace task force, WOGISA (a volunteer industry safety group), seatbelt legislation, and I don’t know if a single meaningful thing has happened in Wyoming workplaces.”
More than a year ago, the Wyoming Oil and Gas Industry Safety Alliance (WOGISA) formed in recognition of high workplace fatality rates and has worked to promote “best practices.” Earlier this year, the group formally allied with Wyoming OSHA to help in the effort.
But state lawmakers and the Dave Freudenthal administration (2002-2010), and now Gov. Matt Mead, have remained reluctant to take significant action beyond these cooperative efforts between regulators and employers. In October, Gov. Mead wrote a letter to WOGISA leaders promising that stepped up enforcement and stiffer penalties are not on the table.
“There are many ways to approach the problem: laws can be passed, rules can be written, fines can be levied. I remain unconvinced that these are the best ways to enhance a culture of leadership and safety. I say this because we don’t yet fully understand the problem,” Mead wrote. “I believe we should focus on the prevention and awareness side before we get heavy handed.”
This week, Mead issued this response to Ryan’s report; “These recommendations are a first step on the path to making every workplace safer. They do not provide a solution but show that some systemic changes need to be made.”
WOGISA communications director Bonnie Foster told WyoFile that she’s not sure whether the industry’s voluntary efforts so far will prevent any workplace fatalities in the coming year. But, she said, the group will push for more buy-in from employees, and not just company safety managers. She also said that of the 600 WOGISA members, only a handful are big oil and gas operators. She said the group needs more participation from big companies like ExxonMobile, BP and Shell.
“We’re missing a lot of the operators and some of the small mom-and-pops,” said Foster. “We need to get more operators and we need to get more employees to stand up and say ‘stop it.’”
Report: Wyoming lacks ‘culture of safety’ January 3, 2012
Official studying Wyoming’s workplace fatality problem resigns, December 20, 2011
Mead declares carrot over stick in workplace fatalities, October 14, 2011
Oil and gas leaders seek to stem deaths on the job, July 14, 2011
Deadly Workplaces; Wyoming’s workplace fatality rate still ranks among worst in the nation, July 12, 2011
Even toothless safety alliance is improvement, June 16, 2011
— Contact Dustin Bleizeffer at 307-577-6069 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting WyoFile: a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.