Wyoming’s workplace fatality rate was the worst in the nation in 2014, the U.S. Department of Labor confirmed last week. Thirty-seven workers were killed on the job in Wyoming, making 2014 the deadliest year for workers since 2007 when 48 people died on the job.

Wyoming’s occupational epidemiologist Meredith Towle said research suggests there is a correlation between the number of active high-risk jobs and the number of workplace fatalities and injuries, so Wyoming’s downturn in energy may result in fewer fatalities in 2015.

State and federal labor officials are still collecting and verifying data for 2015 and won’t have confirmed figures until later this year. So far, it appears the workplace fatality total was lower in 2015, Towle said. Still the 2014 report provides a somber reminder of the continual struggle for workers and their families as advocates prepare to mark Wyoming Workers’ Memorial Day on Friday.

“As we prepare for Wyoming’s 5th Annual Workers’ Memorial Day, an already solemn event becomes even more heartbreaking with the realization that Wyoming has become entrenched as one of the two most dangerous states in the country for people to earn a living,” director of the public interest law firm Lawyers and Advocates for Wyoming Mark Aronowitz said in a prepared statement.

“Ranking first in workplace fatalities should not be acceptable to any of us,” Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association executive director Marcia Shanor said. “On this Workers’ Memorial Day, as we mourn the deaths of 37 of our friends and neighbors, we call upon our policy makers to take action. We have not done enough.

“There are policy changes that can be made,” Shanor continued, “including increasing numbers of inspectors, investigating all incidents that result in death or serious injury, passing a primary seat belt law, increasing fines and actually collecting fines that companies have agreed to pay are a beginning.”

Wyoming’s unemployment rate continues to rise toward a record high in the energy industry downturn, yet Wyoming workforce officials say it doesn’t necessarily lower the risk for injuries or fatal accidents on the job.

“Research shows that when employment in high-risk occupations goes down so do fatalities, [in part because] you retain your most qualified employees,” Towle said. “On the other hand, I think there’s concern that when an employer is cutting back jobs there’s a concern of under-reporting injuries because a worker may not want to draw attention to themselves.”

What workers should know

Stop work: Many employers honor a “stop work” program that encourages workers to call a time-out if they see a potential or impending hazard, so workers and supervisors can better assess how to perform a task safely. Major oil and gas and coal operators in Wyoming have voluntarily implemented “stop work” programs, but it’s not a state or federal law. In fact, Wyoming is a “right to work” state, where employers can fire an employee for just about any reason.

Report an injury: A worker who is injured on the job has 10 days to report the injury to Wyoming Workers’ Compensation to possibly qualify for benefits. Wyoming Workforce Services encourages employers to join the employer in filing a claim, but an employee may file a claim independently.

Seek medical help: Many employers have their own protocols when it comes to workplace injuries. Some employers contract specialty health care services sometimes referred to as “dial a doc” or “doc in a box,” which they may use to assess needed care and next steps. However, employees may seek consultation with any doctor of their choosing. Wyoming statute Article 1 Sec. 38 “Right of health care access” was passed as a ballot initiative in 2012, and provides that “Each competent adult shall have the right to make his or her own health care decisions.”

New reporting law: A newly revised federal rule now effective in Wyoming requires employers to notify Wyoming OSHA when an employee suffers a work-related hospitalization, amputation or loss of an eye. “The notification is required within 24 hours of the incident,” according to Wyoming OSHA. “Previously, employers were only required to notify OSHA of a fatality, or an accident in which 3 or more workers are hospitalized. Employers are still required to notify Wyoming OSHA of workplace fatalities within eight hours.” (To report an incident, employers can call 800-321-6742.)

Workers’ Comp may be all you have: Nearly a century ago, workers and employers struck a bargain: companies that participate in Wyoming Workers’ Compensation, in most instances, cannot be sued by employees and their families, even in the case of employer negligence. In return, Workers’ Compensation was created to make the worker and his/her family whole in the case of injury or death. A mountain of case law has introduced nuance to the arrangement, but the original bargain is largely intact. Keep in mind, not every employer is required to participate in Wyoming Workers’ Compensation. Wyoming is among several states that allow big retailers and others to “opt-out” of the state-run program.

The 2016 Wyoming Safety & Workforce Summit is scheduled for June 22-23 in Cheyenne.

Stats & facts

— From 1992-2013 Wyoming averaged 34 occupational fatalities per year.
— Workers on average earn 15 percent less during the 10 years following an injury.
— Fewer than 40 percent of eligible workers apply for workers’ compensation benefits.
—  Wyoming had a rate of 11.5 injuries per 1,000 workers in 2014.
—  Wyoming’s highest recorded rate of reported injury was 15.6 per 1,000 workers, which occurred in first-quarter 2007.
— During the past 10 years Wyoming’s average annual reported injury rate was 13 per 1,000 workers.

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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  1. I get Mr. Gathercole’s analysis. But if we had continued to see improvement similar to the decade of the 1980s, our job fatalities would approach the national rate. His thought experiment, remember, is an imaginary world. In another scenario, we could combine our population with North Dakota or Alaska. I can’t vote for elected officials in Colorado. I can advocate for policy changes in Wyoming that make workplaces safer and healthier.

  2. Please consider this:

    -1980-89 Wyoming occupational death rate average: 29/100K
    – Since 2008: Wyoming occupational death rate average: @ 10/100K

    During this period the US occupational death rate has remained steady at 3-4/100k

    When you consider that:
    -Wyoming had, and has, an extraordinarily high percentage of its workforce engaged in what are considered hazardous occupations.
    -Many of these deaths are in vehicle accidents while on the clock.
    -The improvement in this area has been dramatic- a reduction of nearly 2/3

    -you have to wonder what is going on here. Please note that this article blames employers for this “crisis”. Also note that the article concludes that the “solution” for this crisis is, wait for it, more government regulation.

    As the man said, never let a good “crisis” go to waste. Even if you have to manufacture it.

  3. Wyoming is a state with a small population of 600K, whose workforce has an exceptionally high percentage of workers in high risk occupations. So why is it a crisis when we have the largest percentage of workplace deaths? Why would anyone expect anything else?

    Let’s do a thought experiment: Let’s make believe that Wyoming is part of Colorado. That the statistics on workplace deaths are joined. The population of our fictitious state would be 5.9 million, with about 160 workplace deaths. And no one would be calling it a crisis.

    I work in one of those high risk occupations. Here is what you need to understand: Men do these jobs, rain or shine, summer or winter, because they pay well and they need to support their families. They work long hours, and they work tired. And they will keep going up on those rigs and roofs as long as someone is hiring. And no matter what government does, some of them are going to die.

  4. Thanks for this story. We’re making progress but have a long way to go. Perhaps we should look at changing the injury reporting time for employees to give them more days to sort through the information they get from their doctor and family versus advice from the employer.

    1. Good suggestion Dan. Wyoming has the shortest reporting requirement of any state I am aware of. Also I would suggest that there has to be some teeth put into the requirement that employers have to report injuries as well. Perhaps some sort of fine or loss of immunity if an injury is not reported on time.