State warms to call for bigger OSHA role in stemming workplace fatalities

UPDATE: Gov Mead to add to OSHA: Gov. Matt Mead announced today that he will shuffle vacant positions within state government, and possibly make new hires, to beef up resources at Wyoming Occupational Health and Administration (OSHA) as part of the state’s larger effort to curb on-the-job fatalities and injuries. Click here to read the update, and click here to read the press announcement from Gov. Mead’s office.

After a decade of resisting more workplace inspections and stepped up enforcement of existing safety regulations, some state officials are now considering a bigger role for the Wyoming Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in addressing the state’s ongoing high workplace fatality rate.

Last week, state officials met with representatives of the Wyoming AFL-CIO and the Spence Association for Employee Rights (SAFER) to discuss approaches toward stepping up Wyoming OSHA’s presence in the construction, oil and natural gas industries — which represent the state’s deadliest occupational sectors, according to state and federal data.

Oil drilling in Montana

“One thing we talked about was increasing the number of spot checks that we do,” said Joan Evans, director of the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services, which oversees Wyoming OSHA.

Such action was the obvious response for safety officials in North Dakota when oil and gas drilling, a major contributor to workplace fatalities, increased dramatically in that state in recent years. Not to step up surprise inspections in the face of increased injuries and deaths “would be a crime,” according to a top official in the North Dakota OSHA office, which is run by the federal government.

Some key changes in Wyoming’s inspection and enforcement effort could be undertaken by the executive branch without legislative action, according to state officials. Interviews with those involved in the discussions on workplace safety with Gov. Matt Mead’s administration indicate change may well be on the way. But the governor remains noncommittal about the potential new state effort.

Responding to a question by WyoFile at the Wyoming Press Association convention earlier this month, Mead said stepped up OSHA enforcement “could be part of the strategy.” He added, “I want to be careful before heading down that path.”

The renewed discussions come after a state report (posted at the end of this article) in December confirmed what many already understood is a grim reality in Wyoming’s workplaces. Wyoming lacks a “culture of safety” that has resulted in an average of one workplace fatality every 10 days for the past 10 years, according to the report. Investigations indicated that in more than 85 percent of the deaths, safety procedures were not followed. Over a 10-year period, Wyoming consistently ranked worst or close to the worst in the nation for workplace fatalities, peaking in 2007 when Wyoming’s rate was four times the national average.

For several years now, state and industry officials have resisted calls for legislation that backers claim would help save workers’ lives, such as a tougher seatbelt law, more OSHA inspections, stiffer penalties for safety violations, and affirmation of Wyoming’s “duty of care” law, which holds oil and gas operators liable for their own proven negligence in the death or injury of a contract worker on their job sites.

The recent discussion of a bigger role for Wyoming OSHA represents a potential shift from Mead’s staunch declaration this past fall to resist enforcement actions as part of an overall strategy to address workplace fatalities.

In an October 2011 letter to the Wyoming Oil and Gas Industry Safety Alliance, Mead wrote, “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. … I believe we should focus on the prevention and awareness side before we get heavy handed.”

Cement crew works on a new home in Casper, Wyoming

Many stakeholders close to the issue anticipated that the state’s occupational fatality report would provide clear direction and serve as a springboard for distinct actions to improve Wyoming’s track record. But the sudden resignation of the state’s leading man in the workplace safety effort, occupational epidemiologist Timothy Ryan, was seen by some as a setback.

After 16 months on the job, Ryan submitted his first formal analysis of Wyoming’s workplace fatality problem to the governor in December, then quit the next day. He later explained to the New York Times that he believed Wyoming’s political leaders didn’t support him in producing the report.

“It got to the point where I wanted to see the action that’s connected to these findings, and I decided it wasn’t happening at a pace I was comfortable with,” Ryan told New York Times reporter Dan Frosch.

The governor and state lawmakers generally side with industry’s preferred strategy of cooperation and “best practices” over enforcement. But worker advocates say there’s always been enough evidence to at least step up OSHA’s role. Ryan’s 9-page report simply added to the evidence, and now more people seem to be warming up to the idea.

“I’m very optimistic, I think that we might get something accomplished,” said Kim Floyd, executive secretary of the Wyoming State AFL-CIO.

But’s it remains unclear whether state leaders will warm up to Wyoming AFL-CIO and SAFER’s other recommendations. They include making company injury records public, broadening Wyoming OSHA’s powers to shut down operations, increase OSHA penalties, and impose serious consequences for those who “discourage the reporting of injuries to protect safety awards, bonuses, and other performance incentives, or to avoid lost time accidents which can potentially lead to increased Workers’ Compensation premiums,” according to a letter from Wyoming AFL-CIO and SAFER to Gov. Mead.

The short amount of time between the release of Ryan’s report in December and the upcoming legislative budget session in February may make it difficult for Floyd and his colleagues to convince lawmakers to take action on such recommendations. But Floyd said if legislative action is needed — whether it’s for more OSHA inspections or more bold measures — worker advocates won’t hesitate trying.

“If there’s any way to get a bill introduced, I think we’re going to try it. I mean, we can’t wait another year,” said Floyd.

Meanwhile, Mead says the state will hire another occupational epidemiologist to replace Ryan and lead the effort to decrease workplace fatalities and injuries. He said the position will move from the governor’s office to the Department of Workforce Services.

“I believe placing this position in the Department of Workforce Services will facilitate data access and allow the State and employers to identify, implement and monitor concrete recommendations and make workers safe,” Mead said in a prepared statement.

In addition to more un-announced workplace inspections, the state is also considering how it can speed up OSHA’s response time to perform courtesy, or volunteer, inspections of workplaces, according to Evans. Part of that effort would have to include convincing more Wyoming employers to request courtesy inspections (which essentially guarantee no citations will be issued identified hazards as long as they are corrected) because only 2 percent of Wyoming’s employers take advantage of the existing program, according to Wyoming OSHA.

OSHA’s Role

Of particular focus in stemming workplace fatalities is the oil and gas industry and related construction. From 2001 to 2008, the oil and gas industry accounted for 20 percent of all occupational fatalities in the state. Ryan reported that 96 percent of those fatalities “occurred when safety procedures were not followed.”

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

According to Ryan, more than half of the 16,000-plus jobs lost in Wyoming during that time were in natural resource development and construction, the occupations with the most risks for injury and death — not only in Wyoming, but across much of the nation.

Matt Reed works on a new home in Casper.

In the summer of 2011, Ryan told WyoFile, “My concern is that people are going to look at this and say ‘problem solved.’ Well, no. When the economy picks back up in construction and mining, and oil and gas picks up, so goes the fatality rate.”

When drilling rigs flooded into North Dakota exploiting the Bakken shale oil play, and the of number workplace fatalities there began to rise, North Dakota OSHA officials wasted little time in stepping up enforcement, according to Erik Brooks, assistant director of OSHA’s Bismark Area Office.

In the fall of 2011, the agency pulled in federal OSHA inspectors from the surrounding region to conduct a two-week “flood” of inspections in the Bakken play, performing 108 onsite inspections, according to Brooks. During the entire previous year, the agency had conducted a total 230 inspections.

“When you’re talking about bringing in 20,000 employees into North Dakota, we have to act according,” Brooks told WyoFile. “If people weren’t getting hurt, then there wouldn’t be such a need for the (OSHA) presence. But when you have half of your fatalities in one industry you have to take action. It would be a crime not to take action.”

Unlike Wyoming, which is among just a handful of states that runs its own OSHA agency, North Dakota is among the majority of states that operate under federal OSHA and its regional offices. Brooks said before the Bakken oil play took off, there were just four OSHA compliance officers assigned to cover both North Dakota and South Dakota. However, as part of the federal OSHA Region 8 office, those states can pull in resources as needed. In addition, three more compliance officers have been hired to help meet the increase in work activity in the two states.

“This increased volume of activity in both construction and oil and gas makes it necessary for us to increase our activity,” said Brooks.

Brooks said he believes that OSHA enforcement and good safety training are the most critical strategies to making the oil and gas industry safer, because much of the risk related to drilling has been “engineered out.” In other words, the industry has come a long way in integrating safety into the design of equipment and process. What’s left is good training and management — particularly at a time when the industry is retiring experienced workers and hiring first-generation roughnecks.

“Lots of young people come up here (to North Dakota). The money is very attractive, and they just don’t have that same skill set. It is a skill and a talent to do this correctly,” said Brooks.

Wyoming OSHA program manager J.D. Danni said his agency has also pooled its resources, on occasion, to focus on a particular industry or geographic area when compliance and accident trends are identified.

“When Jonah started booming in 2006 and 2007, we had all our inspectors go out there for a week or two,” said Danni. “But to tap into federal resources, we don’t do that.”

Since the 1980s, Wyoming has consistently had eight inspector positions, but those slots are often left vacant. Danni explains that Wyoming is home to one of the few OSHA agencies that has rules specific to the oil and gas industry. Once Wyoming OSHA compliance officers gain that expertise, they’re often lured away by the oil and gas industry.

“We did not have a full staff last year. We had a couple of vacancies. Now, we have two new employees that we need to train,” said Danni. “We’ve gone down to where we have three people have left. … A couple of years ago we were down to four inspectors (because of job changes).”


Worker advocates slam state for timid response to workplace fatalities, January 6, 2012

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

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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. Looks like Wyoming can learn from North Dakota … put the enforcement officers where they’re needed. But first we need more enforcement officers, and that’s where the legislature may have to step up this session. Let’s pay for enforcement that prevents injuries and fatalities. Preventing four fatalities a year could save the Workers’ Compensation Fund between $1.5 million and $2 million. Preventing debilitating injuries that leave people on long-term disability will save millions more.