WyoFile Energy Report

Even toothless safety alliance is improvement

The four workplace fatalities that Wyoming Occupational Safety & Health Administration investigated in 2010 resulted in a total $9,125 in penalties, according to federal OSHA documents. That’s an average $2,281 for violations contributing to the death of a worker. 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 resulting from a workplace fatality was $17,105.

Wyoming’s lower penalty average isn’t the kind of tough stance you might expect from a state desperate to shake the distinction of having the worst workplace fatality record in the nation for several years running.

From 2001 to 2008, Wyoming had either the worst or second worst annual workplace fatality rate in the United States. In 2007, Wyoming’s workplace fatality rate was 17 per 100,000 workers — more than four times the national average. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has yet to release figures for 2009 and 2010.

Dustin Bleizeffer

Given this record, it’s tempting to dismiss a newly penned “alliance” between the oil and gas industry and the Wyoming Occupational Safety & Health Administration as a toothless contract meant to avoid more regulatory scrutiny.

It is that. But it is also much more. To imply that each of the nearly 200 members of the Wyoming Oil and Gas Industry Safety Alliance (WOGISA) doesn’t genuinely care about safety would be completely false. And the leaders of WOGISA deserve hearty praise for pushing the safety issue much further than our state lawmakers have been willing to go.

On Wednesday, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead signed a document formalizing the voluntary alliance between WOGISA and Wyoming OSHA. The alliance has a broad goal of promoting better cooperation between OSHA and employers and employees, as well as some very specific training initiatives.

These training programs are vital to safely meeting an expected increase in shale oil drilling in eastern Wyoming as well as ongoing natural gas development throughout the state. It’s typically new-hires who get hurt on the job in the oil and gas industry, and the highway infrastructure in southeast Wyoming was not built to accommodate high-volume industrial traffic.

“The biggest thing is the training component,” said WOGISA board member Bonnie Foster. “We’re trying to make training more affordable for the smaller companies.”

A loaded water tanker exits a ranch on Campstool Road in Laramie County. Oil companies drilling exploratory wells in the Niobrara formation require millions of gallons of water to drill and complete each well. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile – click to enlarge)

So far, WOGISA/OSHA participation among companies working in the Niobrara oil exploration play has been less than desired, according to those close to the programs.

Although prominent members of WOGISA did successfully lobby against draft legislation in 2009 to raise OSHA penalties, lawmakers have ignored the group’s call for a tougher seatbelt law — despite evidence that traffic accidents with unbelted drivers are a major contributor to Wyoming’s workplace fatality rate.

WOGISA’s efforts to develop more workforce safety and development training is absolutely critical given the fact that Wyoming OSHA’s budget will be slashed 20 percent in 2013. The agency currently struggles to meet demand for voluntary services — not that Wyoming employers are busting down walls to enroll in voluntary OSHA programs.

There are eight Wyoming employers enrolled in the Cowboy Voluntary Partnership Program — a sort of 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. Yet if a company were to call Wyoming OSHA today and request a voluntary on-site consultation, it would take more than three months for the agency’s overloaded staff to make the visit.

For normal on-site (presumably unannounced) OSHA inspections, there are just eight inspectors in Wyoming. That’s an inspection rate capability of one on-site inspection every 60 years.

Wyoming OSHA program manager J.D. Danni said that while Wyoming lawmakers chose not to raise penalties for serious violations the penalties increased anyway, due to a federal measure that trimmed credits that can be applied to safety citations. Danni said he sees that as a potential positive.

“If you don’t have a good enforcement program then (OSHA) consultation is not as visible,” said Danni.

There’s been a cultural shift in attitudes toward safety in the past 20 years, and our workers are much better off for it. More companies have come to understand that good safety performance works for their bottom-line, not against it. But it would be a mistake to forgive bad actors based on an industry’s voluntary efforts to do the right thing.

In the coming weeks, WyoFile will tell you more about some of Wyoming’s best players in workplace safety and we’ll also list Wyoming’s worst, based on enforcement actions by Wyoming OSHA. If you’re a worker in Wyoming and have something to say about safety, I’d like to hear from you.

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

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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 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. However Enzis opposition to higher penalties at the federal.level does not prevent Wyoming lawmakers from imposing higher OSHA.fines here at home according to members of the Wyoming Worker.Fatality Prevention Task Force.. He.said the subcommittee supports higher penalties as long as Wyoming.OSHA can still retain the flexibility of imposing whatever.penalty it feels fits the nature of the offense..