Wyoming’s workplace fatality rate improved from worst-in-the nation — 17 fatalities per 100,000 workers in 2007 — to fourth-worst in 2009, according to an AFL-CIO report, passing the “worst” distinction to Montana, Louisiana and North Dakota where many drilling rigs migrated during the same period.

But before Wyoming leaders and employers claim victory over such a poor past performance, safety officials are warning that workplace fatalities could spike again when drilling and construction activity returns to Wyoming.

“More than half of the 16,000-plus jobs lost in Wyoming were in natural resource development and construction, and these bear the most dangerous occupational risks,” Wyoming state occupational epidemiologist Timothy Ryan told WyoFile in a recent interview.

“My concern is that people are going to look at this and say ‘problem solved,’” Ryan continued. “Well, no. When the economy picks back up in construction and mining, and oil and gas picks up, so goes the fatality rate.”

HIGHER FINES, FEWER FATALITIES

On January 5, Kyle Rooke, 42, of Drummond, Id., was struck by drilling mud when a standpipe valve failed on a drilling rig south of Pinedale. The drilling mud caught fire, according to the Wyoming Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Rooke died before medical responders arrived at the scene.

A Wyoming OSHA investigation revealed several alleged safety violations. Rooke wasn’t wearing flame-retardant clothing, and had the rig operator — Unit Drilling Co. — conducted a “protective equipment assessment” the company should have realized that flame-retardant clothing was necessary for the job Rooke was performing, according to Wyoming OSHA.

The investigation, according to OSHA officials, also found improperly functioning equipment related to the accident that should have been repaired, replaced or removed. As a result of those and other safety violations on the rig, Wyoming OSHA issued several citations to Unit Drilling Co., totaling $23,250 in fines. The company has until July 13 to contest the citations or agree to pay.

“Normally, they contest,” said J.D. Danni, program manager for Wyoming OSHA .

Unit Drilling Co. didn’t return WyoFile’s requests for comment.

That $23,250 figure is substantially higher than Wyoming OSHA has issued in the past for violations related to the death of a worker. The four workplace fatalities that Wyoming OSHA investigated in 2010 resulted in a total $9,125 in fines, according to federal OSHA documents. That’s an average $2,281 for violations contributing to the death of a worker.

In this 2009 photo, Ensign driller Bruce Day operates an “iron derrick hand” and other automated equipment designed to make drilling safer. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile – click to enlarge)

By comparison, in April an 18-year-old Worland man was fined more than $9,000 for illegally killing a trophy mule deer. The national average OSHA penalty for safety violations related to a workplace fatality in 2010 was $17,105. Only South Carolina, Nevada, Montana and Alaska had average fatality-related penalties lower than Wyoming’s in 2010.

“Industry here agreed the fines could be higher and we, administratively, followed federal OSHA’s lead in raising fines,” said Danni.

Danni explained that the potential for higher OSHA fines began this year, mostly as the result of trimming several credits a company could earn based on past performance and other factors.

Other steps are being made to improve workplace safety in Wyoming. In June approximately 200 companies within the oil and gas industry formally signed an alliance with Wyoming OSHA. The Wyoming Oil and Gas Industry Safety Alliance (WOGISA) seeks to raise safety awareness, identify best practices and share training resources. Already in the works is a training program for “first-line” supervisors.

The group meets Wednesday (July 13) from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Western Wyoming College in Rock Springs. The meeting is open to the public. (Download the agenda at the bottom of this article.)

But whether Wyoming employers and Wyoming OSHA are actually on course to substantially improve workplace safety is still in serious question.

A 2010 study by the Wyoming Department of Employment’s Research & Planning division, “Employment Change and Impacts on Workplace Fatalities in Wyoming,” found that the number of workplace fatalities in Wyoming closely tracks the number of people working in the state. Analysis of employment and workplace fatalities spanning the 18 years from 1992 to 2009 suggests a 1 percent increase in employment is associated with an increase of 2.4 fatalities annually, according to the study.

For another representation of workplace fatality trends, safety officials look to the fatality rate — or number of deaths per 100,000 workers. In 2007, near the peak of Wyoming’s energy boom, the state’s workplace fatality rate was 17 per 100,000 workers — more than four times the national average of 3.7 for the same year, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

In 2008, Wyoming’s workplace fatality rate improved to 11.6 per 100,000 workers, compared to the national average 3.6.

In 2009, Wyoming’s workplace fatality rate improved to 7.1 per 100,000 workers, compared to the national average 3.5.

Wyoming has improved its workplace fatality rate. However, Ryan warned, that may have more to do with the fact that Wyoming’s job losses were in drilling, mining and construction — those jobs most prone to workplace fatalities.

“If you look at fatality rates, it looks like things are improving,” said Ryan. “But if you look at the number of hospitalizations, amputations and burns — the total number injuries has gone down, but not the rate. Amputations have gone up.”

Ryan said that while voluntary efforts such as WOGISA are an essential step toward stemming workplace injuries and fatalities, it’s likely that those numbers could spike again in correlation with a resurgence in energy development in Wyoming.

Bill Adams of Jackson Electric Inc. operates a trackhoe at a construction site in Casper. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile – click to enlarge)

“Tim is absolutely right,” said Chuck Dobkins, safety and security specialist for Williams Exploration & Production in Gillette. “When the price of gas comes back, and the economy comes back in full-force, you’re going to bring a mass of workers into the state. For those smaller companies that need help, this (WOGISA-OSHA alliance) is a good opportunity to get those companies the help they need and be prepared.”

A large part of the WOGISA effort is to encourage large companies and corporations that can afford good safety programs to share those resources and share their knowledge.

“It’s a heck of a lot better now than it was five years ago,” said Dobkins. “I think we got a better handle on it than we ever have.”

State and industry official believe the biggest stride they can make toward reducing workplace fatalities is to address the use of seatbelts and driving habits. In the state’s preliminary analysis of workplace fatalities, officials found that many of the deaths are the result of vehicle accidents. In 2008, 71 percent of the workers who died in vehicle accidents in Wyoming were not wearing seatbelts. Ryan said when he talks to the WOGISA membership at its meeting this week in Rock Springs, he will recommend the industry institute employee shuttle services to and from worksites where possible.

“You’re taking a good portion of the guys off the road that don’t need to be on the road after working a long shift,” said Ryan. “The model is there, and it has been proven to work, with the coal mines in the Powder River Basin.”

CARROT VS. STICK

In 2009, Wyoming lawmakers and industry leaders were decidedly against a proposal to raise penalties for safety violations related to workplace fatalities. They also defeated draft legislation that would have restored citizens’ right to sue third-party operators for their proven negligence leading to the injury or death of a contract worker.

Despite being saddled with the worst-in-the-nation distinction for workplace fatalities, the decision to emphasize voluntary collaborative efforts rather than inspection and enforcement was emblematic of a pervasive attitude among industry leaders and state lawmakers: “You get more done with incentives and voluntary cooperation than you do from being hard-nosed with inspections and that sort of thing,” Sen. Charlie Scott (R-Casper), chairman of the Labor, Health and Social Services Committee, told WyoFile.

Ken Lantta is owner of KDL Consulting, LLC, and a WOGISA organizer. Lantta formerly worked for Wyoming OSHA and said he worries that companies too often receive citations for safety infractions committed by employees.

“I would offer that most employers are trying really hard to beat up and get rid of the hazards in their workplace, but the hardest nut to crack is the behavior of their folks,” said Lantta.

However, Lantta admitted, Wyoming OSHA rules do provide for discretion in calculating a fine, including factors related to employee vs. supervisor behavior. For example, had Wyoming OSHA been presented with evidence that Unit Drilling had conducted a “protective equipment assessment,” that likely would have factored favorably in its citations against the company in the death of Rooke.

Concrete pipes are stacked at Cretex Concrete Products West in Casper. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile – click to enlarge)

Lantta also contends that higher OSHA penalties are not needed because there’s essentially no ceiling for how big of a fine the agency can issue, to the extent the violation warrants it. He said federal OSHA, by eliminating credits used to reduce base fine amounts “raised the floor,” making it disproportionately tougher on small companies.

“I don’t know that penalties are the answer,” said Lantta. “Nobody looks back and says, ‘We’re glad Joe got killed.’ What we got to do is prevent accidents from happening in the first place.”

In fact, there is a “ceiling” for how much Wyoming OSHA can fine per violation. A serious violation can be up to $7,000 per violation, said Danni. A willful violation (failure to comply with an OSHA request to correct a hazard, for example) can be up to $70,000 per violation. Legislation contemplated in 2009 would have raised the ceiling to $250,000.

VOLUNTARY PROGRAMS

Last week, an iWatch investigative report, “‘Model Workplaces’ Not Always Safe,” found that many companies across the nation that are enrolled in state-level Voluntary Protection Programs enjoy the benefit of fewer inspections but still were guilty of serious safety violations — many resulting in the death of workers. Part 2 of the series was published on Monday.

Read a related iWatch story on workplace safety.

According to a review of Wyoming OSHA’s most serious citations (“willful” and “repeat” citations), companies enrolled in Wyoming’s “Cowboy Voluntary Protection Program” were not guilty of egregious violations during the past four years. However, the number of Wyoming companies enrolled in the program — and other voluntary programs at Wyoming OSHA — are remarkably few.

There are eight Wyoming employers enrolled in the Cowboy Voluntary Partnership Program — a leadership status that allows large companies with exceptional safety programs to mentor other companies in their field.

That’s eight employers out of more than 17,000 in Wyoming.

Number of employers enrolled in Wyoming OSHA’s Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program (SHARP): 81 out of 17,000-plus.

Number of employers enrolled in Wyoming OSHA’s Employer Voluntary Technical Assistance Program (EVTAP): 28 out of 17,000-plus.

Many more companies and their employees take advantage of Wyoming OSHA’s safety training courses in construction, excavation, crane safety and fall protection.

Danni said Wyoming OSHA has always pushed to convince more employers in the state to take advantage of free consultation visits, free training and other voluntary programs. But there is a perception that if an employer asks for a consultation, he’ll get hit with hefty fines for violations OSHA discovers during an onsite visit.

Danni said that’s not the case. OSHA consultants simply ask the company to correct problems, then offer advice on how to operate within OSHA’s safety rules.

“OSHA is a four-letter word,” Danni said. “With some employers you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink.”

Critics of such voluntary OSHA programs argue that it provides a public forum for those employers who are already committed to worker safety, but they do not typically attract bad or hazard-prone operators.

That’s where inspection and compliance efforts come in, said Danni. Despite Wyoming OSHA’s limited resources, the agency directs its inspection and enforcement efforts to problem industries and problem companies.

“There’s always a rotten apple out there where you need compliance and show the stick. For employers that do want to do good, well, there are resources out there to help you,” said Danni.

State epidemiologist Timothy Ryan said he hopes the WOGISA effort continues to grow in Wyoming.

“It will foster more safety. And the more companies that are involved and make a serious commitment to safety, their records will improve,” said Ryan. “Those others that don’t; one would hope the amount of business they get would be reflected in their safety record.”

— Contact Dustin Bleizeffer at 307-577-6069 or dustin@wyofile.com.

Companies enrolled in Wyoming’s Cowboy Voluntary Protection Program:

–  Chevron USA Carter Creek Unit. Evanston, since 2000

–  Chevron USA Central Operations, Rock Springs, since 2007

–  Georgia Pacific Gypsum Plant, Lovell, since 2004

–  GM Stewart Corp, Evanston, since 2004

–  Grant Teton Lodge Co., Grant Teton National Park, since 2005

–  Union Tank Car, (RR work) Evanston, 2006

–  MillerCoors Grain Elevator out of Worland, 2007

–  Simplot Phosphates, Rock Springs, 2008

Employment Change and Impacts on Workplace Fatalities in Wyoming (pdf)

Rate of Fatal Work Injuries Per 100,000 Workers, 1992–2007 (pdf)

New OSHA Penalty Overview by J.D. Danni (pdf)

WOGISA Training and Quarterly Membership Meeting Agenda (pdf)

Unit Drilling contest letter, July 19, 2011 (pdf)

Dustin Bleizeffer

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 22 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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