WyoFile Energy Report

Widow of a fallen Wyoming worker speaks

There’d been a fire at the rig that had gone unreported. The drilling company allegedly failed to conduct all the required inspections before putting the rig back into operation. On February 19, 2007, when C.J. Moss started work on a motor at the rig, he came into contact with faulty wiring and was electrocuted, leaving behind his young wife and toddler.

Dustin Bleizeffer

“The absolute hardest thing I have to talk about is how it’s affected my son. It’s so sad that my son lost his dad at four (years-old),” said C.J.’s widow, Natalie Moss. “He didn’t get to know his laugh. He (C.J.) had such a deep, loud laugh.”

Natalie Moss drove some 400 miles to tell her story to a small but packed conference room at the Ramada Plaza in Casper on Friday. She was invited to speak at a Workers’ Memorial Day event organized by the Equality State Policy Center (ESPC), Wyoming AFL-CIO and the Spence Association for Employee Rights (SAFER).

The ESPC listed (click here) 209 names of the 622 workers who have been killed on the job in Wyoming since 1992.

“The day he was killed someone chose to put profits ahead of safety,” said Natalie Moss. “There’s a lot of workers who have to travel … and there’s a lot of sacrifices we make as families and wives.”

Those sacrifices are not honored when supervisors and fellow employees cut corners and ignore safe practices. I have argued many times that the sacrifices of working families are not honored when our elected officials refuse to take bold measures to improve Wyoming’s long standing distinction as one of the deadliest places to work in America, and refuse to empower workers and their families to seek justice when safety violations are egregious.

But representatives of the ESPC, AFL-CIO and SAFER are speaking in a less confrontational tone these days as they try to build on the recent move by Gov. Matt Mead and the Legislature to beef up courtesy inspections and training programs at the Wyoming Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). This year the Wyoming Legislature passed HB 89, which adds seven new full-time safety consultants and creates a $500,000 grant fund available to employers who want to build a safety program.

Ending Wyoming’s long streak as one of the deadliest workplaces and ensuring that more workers return home alive and uninjured “would be a crowning achievement” for any elected official, said Mark Aronowitz, staff attorney for SAFER.

“Our workplace safety issues are national news,” said Aronowitz, adding that Wyoming workers place themselves at risk while the rest of the nation benefits from the natural gas, oil, coal and other raw fuels that power much of America.

Aronowitz and others suggested that the Wyoming Legislature may be on the verge of finally embracing the issue of workplace safety, after decades of being afraid of upsetting employers. Already, organizations such as the Petroleum Association of Wyoming and the Wyoming Contractors Association have put their support behind tougher seatbelt laws and higher fines for serious safety violations.

So far, our Legislature remains skittish. But worker advocates are not giving up.

“We don’t want to put all the onus on the employers. Employees have to do our part, and the AFL-CIO is committed to making that a priority,” said Wyoming AFL-CIO executive director Kim Floyd. “It’s not going to be easy, but we finally have a governor and others willing to take this on.”

Sen. John Hastert (D-Green River) cancelled his events in Green River on Friday to fill in for a legislator who could not attend the Workers’ Memorial Day event. Hastert, who works as a mobile mechanic at a mine in southwest Wyoming, has championed measures to raise OSHA fines and to clarify existing state law that should allow workers and their families to bring suit against third parties proven negligent (case law, for the most part, has prevented those cases from going to court).

Hastert said that a culture of safety is growing in Wyoming, but slowly. It’s up to the Legislature to make it a priority.

“One of the things I’ve got to tell you is that these agencies, as far as workers’ comp and as far as OSHA is concerned, can only enforce the laws that they have in front of them,” said Hastert.

Hastert said he’s come up against his fellow legislative colleagues who believe Wyoming’s worst-in-the-nation workplace fatality rate can’t be helped with higher fines and more inspections.

“I think it’s up to you, as voters of the state of Wyoming, to make worker safety a yardstick for those candidates,” said Hastert. “I think in this coming election cycle that that’s something that should be questioned. I think that’s something that should be asked of each of the candidates and hear where they stand on workplace safety, and then hold their feet to the fire when they get into the legislature.

“And I’m asking you, the voters of Wyoming, for that help,” Hastert continued, “to help us get the people we need to protect the people of Wyoming the way we need to. Because it has to start with the Legislature.”

C.J. and Natalie made their sacrifices. They lived in a fifth-wheel eating “mac-n-cheese” while C.J. went to  school. They’d bought a house in Idaho and saved up money so Natalie could stay home and have more children. Then C.J. got killed, for nothing more than going to work.

“It’s worth remembering all those people who died. No one goes off to work thinking they’re going to come home maimed or not come home at all,” ESPC director Dan Neal told WyoFile last week.

Don’t let Gov. Mead and the Legislature think that adding courtesy inspectors is enough. It has been a mistake to forgive bad actors for the promises made by stand-up companies to do the right thing. During the past decade, Wyoming has lost an average of one worker every 10 days on the job. One of them was C.J. Moss. Our communities cannot stand this any longer.

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

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