Wyoming examines safety of workers

2009-09-07T00:00:00Z Wyoming examines safety of workersBy DUSTIN BLEIZEFFER Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
September 07, 2009 12:00 am  • 

CASPER, Wyo. - Art Auty says he died Aug. 31, 2004, at the age of 40, suffering severe electrical shock while attempting to remove a utility line insulator outside Lander.

He was resuscitated immediately after the accident.

Under Wyoming law, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is required to investigate a workplace accident if a worker is killed or if an accident results in at least three people going to the hospital.

Auty says he didn't stay dead for long, so there was no OSHA investigation.

"In my accident, there were so many OSHA violations," Auty said. "OSHA's not doing their job."

Arty is among many Wyoming workers who have testified before state legislators in recent years about the need for a number of reforms in the workplace. After two years of lobbying, worker advocates won some moderate reforms of the state's workers' compensation program this year, raising some benefits for injured workers and for the families of those who get killed on the job.

Some say more reforms are needed regarding workers' compensation.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers are also coming under increasing pressure to clarify questions about a lack of third-party liability in the workplace that some believe serves as a disincentive toward safety.

What's prodding Wyoming lawmakers into these thorny workplace issues is this fact: Wyoming's workplace fatality rate is worst in the nation - 17.1 fatalities per 100,000 workers in 2007, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's about three times the national average.

It's a distinction Wyoming has held for several years in a row. While industry and worker advocates continue to argue about liability and workers' compensation, a task force was formed to separately explore what's behind Wyoming's worst-in-the-nation workplace fatality rate.

'Information for action'

At the close of the legislative session this year, Gov. Dave Freudenthal announced the formation of a task force to examine what's behind Wyoming's high workplace fatality rate. The effort is headed by former judge Gary Hartman, who also serves as juvenile justice policy adviser to the governor.

Hartman said the task force will not examine the liability - or duty-of-care - legislative proposals currently sought by worker advocates.

"That's not something we're working on at all," Hartman said. "Our objectives are to gather and analyze data on fatalities, identify risk areas and leading risk areas, and form a collaborative group to work on these fatality issues."

Key to the effort is the work of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The same NIOSH team that was successful in reducing fatalities in Alaska's fishing and helicopter logging industries has been hard at work in Wyoming for several months gathering all the information it can regarding workplace fatalities here.

Paul Anderson, who heads NIOSH's surveillance program in Alaska, said he's still gathering information and is eager to find out what's driving Wyoming's high workplace fatality rate.

"It's information for action. I'm not interested data collecting for the sake of collecting data. I want to do something good," Anderson said.

While NIOSH is providing scientific analysis and leaving the action decisions up to the task force and Wyoming leaders, Anderson said he is encouraging the task force to embrace a couple of things: first, for stakeholders to collaboratively take action on whatever the analysis shows is driving workplace fatalities; and second, to maintain a central database like the one NIOSH developed in Alaska.

Information about workplace fatalities is scattered among about a dozen federal and local agencies. If a fatality occurs at a mine, for example, it's reported to the Mine Safety and Health Administration and isn't shared with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

And if a fatality occurs on a roadway, it's reported to both OSHA and the Wyoming Department of Transportation. But even those databases don't distinguish between a company car on a freeway and a worker getting killed while unloading pipe on a drilling rig site.

Anderson said he and his team are scouring every available database possible, including sheriff reports and newspaper articles. The goal is to have the most complete database possible to get a clear picture of what's happening in Wyoming's workplaces.

"I have on numerous occasions pushed for a centralized database," Anderson said. "When there is a dedicated person working on it, it can produce very focused and informative results.

"It's not enough to just collect data," Anderson continued. "People have to be dedicated to analyzing and thinking about he data in a disciplined fashion."

NIOSH's initial results this summer revealed that driving and seatbelt use are likely a major factor behind Wyoming's poor fatality rate.

From 2003 to 2007, there were 210 workplace fatalities in Wyoming, according to a preliminary report by NIOSH. Of those, 136 occurred in transportation. More than half of the victims didn't wear seatbelts.

Duty of care

While the task force and NIOSH are focused solely on identifying problems and preventing accidents, it in no way settles concerns about what some say are liability and regulatory inadequacies.

Each year, industry groups submit legislation to extend legal immunity to supervisors and managers. Legislators are continually under pressure to keep workers' compensation premiums low and even issue credits when the fund is strong.

And one group of workers and attorneys is pushing hard to clarify the "duty of care" that an oil and gas operator owes to contract employees working on locations they control. Wyoming law provides for a jury to determine the percentage of fault different parties may share in an accident or injury.

Because oil and gas operators don't pay into Wyoming's workers' compensation system, they do not enjoy legal immunity from lawsuits brought by employees and their families. Yet case law over the past 15 years has made it difficult for those complaints to advance in the court system.

Cheyenne attorney George Santini said that de facto immunity, along with the immunity that workers' compensation provides to participating employers, doesn't compel companies to maintain safe workplaces.

"This, coupled with the lack of any effective administrative enforcement mechanism, essentially means that workplace safety is left largely up to each individual employer," Santini said. "Some place a high value on it, others very little if any."

Contact Dustin Bleizeffer can be reached at 307-577-6069 or dustin.bleizeffer@trib.com.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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