Wyoming will remember its fallen workers

— April 22, 2014

Kerry Drake
Kerry Drake

Dan Neal is determined to see that Wyoming workers who lose their lives on the job are remembered as much more than just numbers on a page.

“We talk about this so much in terms of statistics, like the worker fatality rate,” he said. “It’s important to remember those numbers represent people and families and neighborhoods. Once someone is killed on the job, it ripples through a community, and it can devastate a family.”

Neal, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center, is organizing the fourth Workers Memorial Day in Wyoming on Monday, April 28. Thirty-five workers in the state lost their lives last year, and they will be honored at a Cheyenne ceremony that begins at 10 a.m. in the Capitol Rotunda.

It’s been widely publicized Wyoming had either the worst or next-to-worst worker fatality rate in the nation for most of the past decade, but deaths at workplaces had been declining in recent years.

“We’ve been making efforts to make things better, and I think people justifiably feel good about the progress that’s been made,” Neal said. “But we’ve just had a five-year high in job fatalities here. We’re not making the headway we need to make.”

Wyoming’s former state occupational epidemiologist Timothy Ryan captured the attention of many industries, the public and state lawmakers when he claimed in a 2011 report Wyoming lacked a “culture of safety.” Before he left his post, Ryan said safety is an afterthought at most work sites in the state.

“I agree with people who say we need to change the work culture in this state, so people understand that getting the job done safely is more important than just getting the job done,” Neal said. “ But in order for that to happen, we’ve got to get the attention of these companies. And the way you get their attention is by hitting them in their pocketbook.”

Even prior to Ryan’s dramatic report, efforts were under way in 2010 to improve worker safety. On their own, representatives of the oil and gas industry created a safety alliance that made two recommendations to the Legislature: pass a mandatory seat belt law to reduce the high number of job-related traffic deaths, and significantly increase the penalties for serious safety violations.

Both measures died in the Senate. Other mandatory seat belt bills have been introduced and rejected, but the idea of levying higher fines on oil and gas producers hasn’t been brought back at all. It’s a non-starter, despite the industry’s willingness to potentially pay more to keep workers from being injured or killed.

“When companies have to pay because they haven’t provided a safe workplace, that will get their attention,” Neal said. “But ultimately, we need to get them to demonstrate their commitment to safety.”

The ESPC official said Wyoming has some of the biggest companies in the world operating within its borders. “We think their top officials should be coming to Wyoming and saying, ‘This is unacceptable. We’ve got to get this work done safely. We don’t want people getting killed on our job site,’” he said. “They should also meet with their middle managers and say, ‘We really mean this.’”

Neal said some companies in the state have repeatedly violated Wyoming’s safety laws. “Sinclair Refinery [near Rawlins] is a classic example,” he said. “If you think you can ignore these rules, and nothing will happen to you, then why not ignore them?”

The fact there have been no deaths at the refinery appears to be largely a matter of luck or some other phenomenon, not the company’s safety procedures. Three fires occurred at the refinery in 2012. Toxic chemicals, including hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide, were accidentally released in May 2013, sending 20 sick workers to the hospital. Two flash fires also occurred that month that injured six employees, including three who were severely burned.

Those incidents were followed by an explosion and fire that happened in September, and another fire occurred in December.

Wyoming’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) finally sent a message that it takes safety seriously. Last September, the agency fined Sinclair a record $707,000 for 22 alleged safety violations found during a May inspection. OSHA broke it down this way: $442,000 for six willful violations, $225,000 for six repeat violations, and $62,000 for 10 new violations.

A willful violation is defined as a situation in which an employer either knowingly failed to comply with a legal requirement, or acted with plain indifference to employee safety. A serious violation could cause an accident or illness that would most likely result in death or serious physical harm.

Sinclair appealed the record fine, and the case is still pending. But OSHA didn’t stop there.

Last Wednesday, it proposed an additional $201,000 fine for seven violations it discovered after the explosion and fire last September. Two of these were termed willful violations.

Sinclair issued a statement that it’s working with OSHA to improve safety at the refinery. That is true: OSHA’s John Ysebeart said the company and the agency have met at least once a month for the past year and a half to discuss safety problems and how to correct them.

“Sinclair has devoted quite a bit of their resources to fixing the issues they have there,” he noted. Neal agreed.

“Sinclair is coming around,” he said. “But what that means is we have six to seven compliance inspectors in the state, and if you have a couple devoting most of their attention to Sinclair, and someone gets killed somewhere else, you’ve got a compliance inspector who’s got to do a very serious investigation which will take hundreds of hours.

“Now we’re down to three or four inspectors for everybody else in the state,” he concluded.

OSHA has an equal number of staff members who do courtesy inspections requested by companies, which fix the problems in lieu of paying fines.

“It’s not enough,” said Neal, who noted the Wyoming AFL-CIO estimates if OSHA uses only its current resources, it would take 105 years to inspect every work site in Wyoming one time.

The ESPC’s Wyoming Coalition on Safety and Health (WYCOSH), which includes the AFL-CIO and other unions, the Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association and the Wyoming Association of Churches, recommends the Legislature increase state fines for serious safety violations and provide funds to hire more inspectors.

Like the oil and gas, transportation and construction industries, Wyoming’s five refineries have banded together to form a safety alliance.

Initially, Ysebaert said, there were issues that had to be worked out, especially regarding trade secrets the companies wanted to protect. “That has come a long way,” he related. “The purpose is to look at the refinery safety issues common among them all. It’s been nice to see that really mature, from a fledgling organization to working together.”

At the Workers Memorial Day ceremony, some family members of workers killed on the job will share their experiences – both losing a loved one and dealing with state agencies to find out exactly what happened. Other speakers will include Wyoming AFL-CIO Executive Secretary Kim Floyd, plus state and safety officials.

One person Neal said he hoped would be there is Gov. Matt Mead, but he won’t be able to attend.

“I know the governor is a busy man, but just like we are asking the CEOs of these companies to point out how important this is, I wish the governor would be speaking up with a stronger voice,” Neal said. “We started making progress in the state when Gov. [Dave] Freudenthal made this a priority. If Gov. Mead doesn’t continue that, then we won’t keep making progress.”

— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is a contributor to WyoHistory.org. He also moderates the WyPols blog.

— Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact WyoFile editor-in-chief Dustin Bleizeffer at dustin@wyofile.com.

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Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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