An asphalt crew weathers the heat in Casper in 2016. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

In recent years Wyoming workers have died falling from roofs, getting crushed by machinery, being killed on roadways and, on one occasion, falling through ice during a rescue attempt, according to state and federal data.

One “fatal alert” posted at the Wyoming Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s website summarizes a 2022 mowing incident in just 68 words and lists as a factor, “It took approximately 20 minutes for anyone to notice the employee was in need of assistance.”

Wyoming improved its year-over-year per-capita fatality rate in 2021 — the most recent year for which complete data is available — seeing 23% fewer on-the-job fatalities, according to state and National Safety Council data. Even with the improvement, Wyoming ranked worst in the nation. 

Wyoming also ranked worst-in-the-nation in 2020, according to an AFL-CIO report, with 13 workplace fatalities per 100,000 workers compared to second-worst Alaska with 10.7.

Wyoming’s workplace fatality rate continually ranks worst or among the worst in the nation. (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)

“If you want to know why we don’t have an adequate workforce in Wyoming, look at our [per-capita on-the-job] death rate,” Wyoming AFL-CIO Executive Director Tammy Johnson said. “If you want to know why we don’t have a workforce in Wyoming, look at the policies we have to protect workers. We don’t have any.”

Johnson will join other worker advocates at an AFL-CIO-organized commemoration at the State Capitol today in recognition of Workers’ Memorial Day. The annual event honors those who went to work to earn a paycheck only to be killed on the job, including the 27 workers who died in Wyoming in 2021 and the 35 workers who died in 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Figures are not yet publicly available for 2022.

Johnson said she and other worker advocates in Wyoming are tired of excuses offered to explain the state’s deadly workplace track record — explanations that include driving long distances, remote workplaces far from medical care, inclement weather and a lack of safety knowledge among employees.

“It’s time for this state to take action and make employers responsible for job safety,” Johnson said. “[Employers] need to be held accountable for [on-the-job fatalities], not fined. Held accountable.”

Bill Adams of Jackson Electric Inc. operates a trackhoe at a construction site in Casper in 2015. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

The AFL-CIO worries that workplace safety isn’t a national priority. The union organization’s new “Death on the Job” report shows that agriculture, transportation, mining and construction — which all contribute significantly to Wyoming’s economy — still ranked among the deadliest jobs in the nation in 2021. It also found that Black and Latino workers are most likely to get killed on the job.

“Over the years, the progress has become more challenging as employers’ opposition to workers’ rights and protections has grown, and attacks on unions have intensified,” the AFL-CIO stated in the report’s executive summary.

Oversight limitations

There’s much room for improvement when it comes to workplace safety, Wyoming OSHA Program Manager Karen J. Bebensee said. But she discounts Wyoming’s 2021 worst-in-the-nation workplace fatality rate status for its inclusion of workers who don’t reside in the state and employers that are not based in Wyoming.

“Statistics are tricky, to be quite honest,” Bebensee said. “Any loss-of-life is a tragedy, but a lot of those are actually motor-vehicle accidents because we have huge interstate systems.”

Authority over workplace safety is limited and divided among several different agencies. Agriculture, for example, is exempt from OSHA rules and regulations, as are highways, Bebensee said. Other employee fatalities, such as heart attacks and COVID-related deaths among employees are not under OSHA jurisdiction but those incidents are included in a state’s workplace fatality rate calculation.

“There’s a lot that we don’t have jurisdiction over,” Bebensee said. “But we do compliance inspections, we have consultation programs and provide a lot of resources.” 

It is difficult to collect and analyze enough data from various agencies to develop responsive strategies to improve workplace safety at the state level, Bebensee added. “Honestly, we’d love to have more people get involved in that,” she said, “but we do work with a lot of different employers.”

Continual problem

Workplace safety has dogged Wyoming throughout the state’s history. Even in modern times, Wyoming has continually ranked worst or among the worst in the nation for workplace fatalities, resulting in several efforts to improve safety.

An unattended ladder rests on a work trailer at a Casper restaurant in 2016. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

The state created a Safety Improvement Fund in 2012 inviting employers to apply for up to $10,000 in state funds with a 10% match. State lawmakers considered stiffer OSHA penalties in 2014, responding to criticism that fines are not enough of a deterrent for ignoring safety standards and regulations. In 2016, Wyoming Workforce Services launched a “Safety and Risk” division. It’s unclear whether the industry-led Wyoming Oil & Gas Industry Safety Alliance, formed more than a decade ago, is still active.

Most of those efforts, however, are voluntary and rely on the good will of employers, the AFL-CIO’s Johnson said. There needs to be more inspections, more consequential enforcement actions and more empowerment of employees in Wyoming, she said, but state officials are leery of policies that empower workers.

“When I talk to legislators about safety statutes or protecting workers or workers rights or anything to do with changing how we work with employers and workers, I get crickets,” Johnson said. “They don’t want to talk about it.”

A stronger union presence in Wyoming would go a long way to empower workers, she said. But that’s difficult in a state like Wyoming that prioritizes “right to work” laws. This past legislative session, lawmakers again embraced an anti-union position with the passage of Senate File 147 – Government contracts-labor organization. The bill prohibits state agencies from entering into project labor agreements on public works projects.

A pervasive anti-union attitude among state-elected officials, combined with a poor workplace safety track record, doesn’t bode well for Wyoming’s ambition to attract enough qualified workers to construct major new power transmission lines and wind energy facilities that are in the works, or build myriad other infrastructure projects that are backed by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Johnson said.

“They want to leave [workplace safety] up to the employers, and if you look at the data, you’ll see how good the employers are doing with that.”

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. I would like updates and any information leading to protecting workers in wyoming as it is a need and one that has gone too far and allowed to continue for far too long.

  2. Funny how you can do a study and make it come out however you want. Wyoming doesn’t need a union to keep us safe.

  3. MSHA is the agency for mine safety. I did a quick look of fatalities in WY and 1 in 2021, 1 in 2017 1 in 2014

    All are unfortunate but a very low rate.

    When I was working in WY I do remember that the incident rate was higher for real estate agents than for miners.
    Dave Duffy Mining Engineer

  4. This may not be here nor there but I do remember Malcolm Wallop made a big deal out of the OSHA Act years ago when he was first elected to the U.S. Senate. He was in staunch opposition to the legislation and it had a lot to do with him being elected. In actuality the OSHA Act has went far beyond its primary purpose of establishing rules for workplace safety in different industries. It created a whole safety product and training industry that still survives to this day. Individual attitudes about safety are much more difficult to get a handle on. I see drivers in particular all the time and think, “that guy has a death wish.”

  5. Pretty much why you don’t ski, board and sled in avalanche dangerous areas….But it’s not a concern to everyone.

  6. There is a key piece of this article that never is addressed. What are the circumstances of the employee that dies trying to do a rescue on ice? How exactly does a Union make a life or death situation decision made in an instant more safe? Do you stand on the side of the iced over body of water waiting for the life saving apparatus while the individual in peril dies or do you try and save the person. Do not get me wrong, I am all about work place safety, but like any statistic – especially from government- you have to drill down a little deeper.

    Or consider the out of state truck driver that chooses to ignore the training and still rolls down I-80 in a snow storm at 75 mph and kills a tow truck driver and EMT? How many of these deaths on I-80 are Wyoming drivers vs out of state drivers? Fed Ex drivers are notoriously bad, Swift drivers a close second? In my experience, Wyoming employers are safety conscious, but how do you make out of state firms more safety oriented? Back out the out of state perpetrators and you will probably find Wyoming employers are more safety conscious that what the number imply. Too many commentors on this page continually poke at Wyomingites when in reality the facts state otherwise.

  7. A good many deaths, as obliquely noted, occur on I-80. Nearly all of those are attributable to neither Wyoming companies nor Wyoming workers. They were just passin’ through. I haven’t looked at the latest numbers, but the last time I did — some 15 years ago — as a reporter, I discovered that nearly half the ‘workplace’ deaths were in interstate trucks. Those should not be counted against Wyoming’s totals but perhaps laid at the door of such as Amazon & FedEx which insist that drivers adhere to severely, inhumanly, tight schedules. It is, h’ever, true that many Wyoming employers have an extremely cavalier attitude toward worker safety, as Dewey mentions in his remarks. I’ve been the recipient of that same attitude in the building trades, and many years ago a friend was killed because his foreman told him to go inside an oil tank without breathing apparatus to weld a leaking seam.

  8. Curious if anyone knows the % of workers in Wyoming employed in mineral extraction, agriculture, and related jobs? There is no excuse for insufficient safety practices, but if we are making per capita comparisons between states, that % might be something important to include earlier in the article.

  9. Think of the lives saved if the WY government was worried about actual citizens rather than made up election fairytales and nonsense culture wars.

    1. amazing isn’t it John. all diversion and subversion from positive legislation and real issues.

  10. I speculate there is a not-so-hidden cost to all Wyoming residents from the lax workplace safety attitude : it drives up insurance rates all around. Just another line item on the ledger of costs of doing business.
    The incidents of on the job traumatic injuries may be concentrated in the blue collar trades , but insurance actuaries will adjust premiums across the entire workforce spectrum to keep the state’s pool full. Wyoming’s sparse population is a huge impediment to keeping insurance rates lower…we honestly cannot pay our own way here using only our own resident resources.
    As a sidebar, I challenged my car insurance provider when they raised my rates 54 percent in one 12-month period . Nationwide , car insurance went up 13-22 percent in most states on average. I finally got a human being in Baltimore admit that on paper, Wyoming is a very dangerous place to drive with a high accident rate , a sharply rising highway fatality rate, lots of DUI’s, and lots of sundry moving violations . The actuaries and their pet algorithms feel justified in jacking up everybody’s insurance premiums to compensate for the hefty costs from the bad drivers, above and beyond the benchmark inflation. Wyoming is paying a penalty fee upfront for being so cavalier.
    I feel sure that any insurance costs incurred from injuries in the Wyoming workplace also have that surcharge applied , coming and going. We all pay more for attitudes, indiscretions, and negligences. Anyone who’s worked in the blue collar and hardhat trades here knows that workers are expected to just ” cowboy up ” or ” be a real rough and ready roughneck ” to git ‘er done. The white hardhat jobsite boss looks the other way because his boss back at HQ told him to keep costs down so he can keep profits up. Workers are treated as just another tool or piece of equipment.
    I once had a roofer contracter tell me if I fell off the roof I would get fired on the way down before hitting the ground so he wouldn’t have to pay unemployment….

    The Wyoming Way. We all know we’re eventually gonna get hurt on the job. Just waiting to take our turn.

    P.S. I wholeheartedly agree that Wyoming’s devotion to anti-union Right To Work laws does in fact ratchet this situation towards the worse. America needs organized labor now more than ever. Nowhere moreso than the Cowboy State.

  11. I skimmed parts of the story, so maybe this was covered, but I suspect that WY workers are more likely to be doing hazardous jobs. If you’re comparing the death rate of burger flippers in LA to miners in WY, it’s not exactly apples-to-apples.

  12. As an individual with over 110 hours of Hazmat training that always includes basic workplace safety issues; I know unsafe conditions when I see them. My work often placed me on large construction projects. Safety meetings were always held weekly if not daily. This was the State of Washington. I retired part time to Teton County and what I see and read about there appalls me. And the employers responsible for placing workers in dangerous (and fatal) situations, WALK! Unbelievable to me. Besides a lack of regulations, there’s a basic lack of respect for human life. Tell me this is the “Wyoming way”???

  13. i guess the workers in wyoming are more independent thinkers & can judge for themselves if they want to work in a hazardous job.
    those workers who work in wyoming for the afl-cio for example are more group thinkers
    & let others due their thinking for them.

    1. Paul: I would venture to say that most construction workers do not have much choice about being placed in hazardous conditions. Do the work or go home. Is that the choice you refer to?

      1. all work is hazardous.
        you can be a cracker jack store clerk,a criminal comes into the store armed,
        robs & kills you.
        your choice to work as a store clerk,still a statistic that you are killed on the job !

    2. Or maybe the “group thinkers” put all of their thoughts together to make things better for all, while the “independent thinkers” (of only themselves) have to rely only on their thoughts that have been indoctrinated into them by corporate america.