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Time for Wyoming to Protect Workers

Jan 17, 2012

Wyoming's workers should take time to read Dr. Timothy Ryan's memorandum to Gov. Matt Mead, "Occupational Fatality Recommendations." The Dec. 19 report brightly illuminates the need for sweeping changes in state policy to ensure the safety of Wyoming's workers.

Wyoming had the nation's highest or second highest workplace fatality rate in the country for eight of the nine years between 2001 and 2009. In 2010 there were 34 workplace fatalities in Wyoming, a 78 percent increase from 2009. While the total number of injuries has declined, "… major injuries remain a problem" with some 700 workers hospitalized every year – and that number is increasing.

We support Dr. Ryan's four main recommendations calling for more data collection and monitoring, more encouragement of industry efforts to reform itself, and more courtesy inspections by OSHA, which allow companies to have a state safety inspection without fear of citations for violations of safety law.

But Dr. Ryan's report also found that when workers have been killed on the job in Wyoming, safety procedures were not being followed in 85 percent of the cases. Industry itself admits efforts to build a "culture of safety" have failed. Faced with the condemnation in Dr. Ryan's report, the state must rise to the challenge and use its legal power and moral authority to force industry to adopt the fundamental changes required to, as Gov. Mead says, "… get workers in Wyoming home safely at the end of the day."

To end the killing and maiming on the job, state officials must make a real commitment to change policy and must invest more state resources, especially in enforcement of safety laws.

As advocates for all workers – those currently healthy and those previously injured – and in consideration of the weight of the obligation owed to the families of the 622 Wyoming workers who died on the job between 1992 and 2009 – we urge implementation of the following recommendations aimed directly at reducing the number of workplace injuries and fatalities.

The state of Wyoming operates an occupational safety and health program, but the agency's small staff limits its inspection capacity. We recommend that OSHA be empowered with substantial new staff, resources and training needed to beef up both the compliance and courtesy branches.

We support mandatory inspections post-injury, plus scheduled and surprise inspections pre-injury. Inspections should be mandatory for any injury requiring overnight hospitalization.

Since companies rarely avail themselves of courtesy inspections, enforcement and compliance should have the resources necessary to find and identify hazardous conditions before an injury occurs.

Wyoming is the nation's No. 1 coal producing state. The enormous coal industry enjoys a significantly better safety record than Wyoming's oil and gas industry. The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is responsible for inspecting mines. Given the large safety disparity between the two industries, Wyoming OSHA should consult its MSHA counterparts, focusing on what MSHA does differently, be it mandatory inspections, surprise inspections, or greater financial threats, through freezing operations or through larger fines, penalties and citations.

We support increased penalties and other serious consequences for employers and employees who discourage the reporting of injuries to protect safety awards, bonuses, and other performance incentives, or to avoid lost time accidents which can potentially lead to increased Workers' Compensation premiums. We also suggest imposing sizable penalties and fines on employers who offer to pay injured workers under the table for their lost wages and medical treatment if they do not file a Workers' Compensation claim or who otherwise dissuade an injured worker from seeking or receiving prompt medical treatment. The state should enforce existing criminal provisions to deter this kind of behavior.

Finally, company injury records should be made public. MSHA has a data retrieval system containing a history of every mine and mine operator. Wyoming OSHA should do the same. General contractors, work site owners, and workers deserve to know whether their sub-contractors, independent contractors, and employers have instilled or rejected a culture of safety.

How do we pay for all this? The state Constitution authorizes use of the Workers' Compensation fund to finance workplace safety programs. That fund contained $1.35 billion on Nov. 30. Money is not the limiting factor here. The question is whether Gov. Mead and Wyoming's Legislature have the resolve to do what is needed to protect the people who voted them into office.

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