Wyoming should recognize Workers Memorial Day

— April 25, 2013

When six workers were burned (at least three of them severely) in two separate flash fires at the Sinclair refinery near Rawlins last spring, it was a surprise to no one.

Dustin Bleizeffer

For a refinery with such a notoriously awful safety and environmental record (read this and this), it’s not a stretch to say these were no ordinary accidents at all, rather the inevitable cost of Wyoming’s culture of irreverence toward workers and workplace safety.

In 2010, companies found in violation of safety regulations related to workplace fatalities paid an average $2,281 in penalties. That same year, a Worland man was fined more than $9,000 for illegally killing a trophy mule deer.

Accountability for safe work places has not been Wyoming’s strong point.

As families mourn the loss of the 15 killed, and while more than 200 others learn to live with injuries from the fertilizer plant explosion in West Texas, it’s easy to imagine how this type of tragedy could have happened to the community surrounding the Sinclair refinery in Carbon County. It was dumb luck that a May 2009 spill of 3 million gallons of highly flammable fuel at the refinery didn’t ignite.

Sunday April 28 is Workers Memorial Day, a day set aside each year to remember workers killed on the job, and the families they leave behind. It’s particularly important that Workers Memorial Day be recognized here in Wyoming where, until a couple of years ago, the state held the dubious distinction for having the worst, or second-worst, workplace fatality rate in the nation every year for a full decade.

On average, 36 workers died on the job each year for the period of 2001 to 2010, according to Mack Sewell, Wyoming’s occupational epidemiologist. The good news, says Sewell, is Wyoming’s workplace fatality rate is trending downward. There were 29 deaths on the job in 2011, and 23 (a provisional figure) in 2012.

The bad news; “When I look over the list of fatalities, it’s hard to come up with one universal theme,” Sewell said in a recent phone interview.

No one industry is to blame for Wyoming’s high rate of workplace fatalities. We know that about 60 percent occur under the category of transportation and that there’s a bewildering failure to use seatbelts.

But Wyoming’s biggest challenge is to fully comprehend what actually happens at the state’s work sites, many of them in rural areas. Wyoming OSHA inspectors often don’t know where drilling rigs are working, and there’s an over-reliance on self-reporting among employers.

In my 15 years of covering Wyoming’s energy industries I’ve heard many anecdotes about supervisors urging employees not to report injuries or seek medical attention. Place on top of that the reluctance among multiple agencies to share injury and fatality information and you have a dangerous lack of evidence to compel leaders to fully commit the resources needed to improving workplace safety.

As a result, Wyoming leaders have chosen to forego imposing stiffer penalties for proven violations and adding the OSHA staff necessary to demand full accountability. In place of stiffer penalties and more surprise onsite inspections, Wyoming continues to appeal to employers to voluntarily step up their safety practices.

Safety gains

Many companies have stepped up, at the urging of state officials and worker advocates.

Wyoming lawmakers passed House Bill 89 in 2012, boosting Wyoming OSHA staff by seven and establishing a $500,000 Safety Improvement Fund for employers. Most of the additional staff, as a provision of the law, went to Wyoming OSHA’s consultation division with the intent of encouraging more employers to call for voluntary site inspections — or as agency officials prefer, “surveys.”

The new programs have only been in place since July 2012, but response so far is encouraging, said Wyoming OSHA administrator John Ysebaert. Since July 1, 2012, Ysebaert’s staff has conducted 214 of the voluntary onsite surveys at the request of employers, and there are 72 pending requests still in queue.

Since the Safety Improvement Fund was launched in July 2012, the department has granted a total $140,000. Each Wyoming company can apply for up to $10,000 and must match 10 percent of the grant award. One award went to a school district that used the money to buy a scissor-lift as a safer alternative to what staff had been using, and another company used the grant to purchase a trailer used to transport safety equipment and safety training to its multiple remote locations throughout the state.

“Those floodgates have really opened up,” Ysebaert said, noting that the 214 voluntary surveys since July compares to just 109 for the entire previous year.

Ysebaert said Wyoming OSHA has responded to a long criticism that not only are there not enough OSHA inspectors (it would take more than 60 years for the limited OSHA staff to visit each Wyoming work site) but they are concentrated in Cheyenne and Casper. OSHA has begun placing its consultation staff in different Wyoming cities rather than concentrating them in Cheyenne and Casper. By having more staff in Gillette, Evanston, Lander and other towns, OSHA employees are establishing relationships with local businesses and they’re better able to focus attention in needed areas, said Ysebaert.

Wyoming’s refiners are stepping up as well. At the urging of Gov. Matt Mead and his advisors, the state’s refineries met in August and formed a safety alliance modeled after the Wyoming Oil and Gas Industry Safety Alliance (WOGISA). The alliance includes seven refining facilities and Dyno Nobel, which operates a chemical plant outside Cheyenne. The group has met monthly since its formation in August, according to Mike Achacoso, vice president for safety at Sinclair.

“I think we’ve come a long way as an industry group since our first meeting in August,” Achacoso told WyoFile in a recent interview.

He said the first challenge the alliance identified is the high rate of retirement among the industry’s experienced professionals. Each year, Wyoming refiners lose 50 to 60 experienced employees to retirement, and replacing them requires extra efforts in training. So the group is working with local community colleges to create a three-month “basic operating curriculum,” which will launch in August.

“It’s a classic partnership between industry and the state,” said Achacoso.

Worker advocacy

Worker advocacy groups in Wyoming say the state ought to follow the lead of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), which uses some 40 inspectors to monitor — in the flesh — Wyoming’s mining industry.

“Our position here is we think the culture will never really change until we move toward the MSHA approach, which is to put more inspectors on the ground. … (Wyoming) OSHA, they need more resources,” said Dan Neal, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center, which represents some 30 organizations, including several unions.

Neal was a speaker in a recent conference call for the press, organized by the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (NCOSH). This week, NCOSH released a new report, “Preventable Deaths: The Tragedy of Workplace Fatalities,” identifying a general failure to meet existing workplace safety rules and regulations as the primary cause for the 4,600 workers killed on the job nationwide in 2011.

“Each worker killed is a tragic loss to the community of family, friends and co-workers – and the worst part is, these deaths were largely preventable,” Tom O’Connor, executive director of National COSH, said in a press statement. “Simply by following proven safety practices and complying with OSHA standards, many of these more than 4,600 deaths could have been avoided. But as companies decry regulations and emphasize profits over safety, workers pay the ultimate price.”

Nationwide, and in Wyoming, NCOSH and its partners say they’re alarmed at the increasing use of temporary workers. They say that immigrant workers are also particularly vulnerable to unsafe work conditions due to language barriers the fear of deportation. The group says OSHA agencies ought to employ bilingual inspectors, and add more boots on the ground for onsite inspections.

But Congress and state legislatures are not in the mood to increase government resources, and there’s a sense among many leaders across the country that government is already over-regulating, squeezing business’ ability to operate in a struggling economy.

Neal said the most effective course of action for NCOSH and his organization is to convince the business community and the public at large to embrace workplace safety as a cost-savings. Not only do safe workplaces make for more efficiency and a more reliable workforce, but workplace fatalities and injuries force workers and their families to rely on other social safety net services.

“This is one of the great canards,” said Neal. “The cost exists throughout the economy whether we make the responsible party pay or whether the rest of society pays.”

Too many Wyoming families already understand this reality, and others shouldn’t wait until a death or serious injury hits home to get behind efforts to improve safety. Wyoming’s leaders deserve credit for the meaningful steps taken. But here in the Cowboy State, we still have a long way to go.

— Dustin Bleizeffer is WyoFile editor-in-chief, and a former Powder River Basin coal miner. You can reach him at (307) 577-6069 or email dustin@wyofile.com. Follow Dustin on Twitter at @DBleizeffer

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

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  1. Thanks for your persistence in your coverage of the Sinclair Refinery! You have done an outstanding job.

  2. The Sinclair refinery near Rawlins:

    Perhaps the accidents are related to the fact that they pay some of the lowest wages in the industry. Immigrant workers in Jackson can bring down a bigger salary.