Injured worker

An injured worker is wheeled to an ambulance at Western Sugar in Billings in 2014.

Montana ranks among the worst states in the country for workplace injuries and illnesses, for reasons that continue to elude state officials.

“We spend a lot of time considering and thinking about whether there’s uniqueness in Montana that contributes to us having this higher rate than other states,” said Eric Strauss, the administrator for the Employment Relations Division within the state Department of Labor and Industry. “Those efforts have not surfaced anything specifically. It’s not a specific industry. It’s not an age demographic.”

Montana has spent more than a decade atop the national rankings for its rate of workplace injuries in the private sector.

In 2016, 4.2 injuries were reported for every 100 full-time workers in Montana — a slight improvement over the rate of 4.3 reported in 2015, and the fourth straight year in which that number has decreased, according to a report released by the Department of Labor and Industry in November

2016’s rate places Montana behind only Washington, Vermont and Maine — although the national rankings omit a handful of states that don’t report those data.

Montana officials have not been able to pinpoint why the state ranks so high for workplace injuries and illnesses.

Some industries are more prone to injuries than others. Mining, logging and construction sectors typically top the list with the highest rates of injuries on the job in the nation. Those industries represent a higher percentage of the workforce in Montana than in most states.

Manufacturing, for instance, has one of Montana’s highest rates of workforce injuries, at 5.4 per 100 full-time workers. Construction generates an average of 4.9 injuries per 100 workers in the state.

But, Strauss pointed out, even among less injury-prone industries like education and information services, Montana’s rates are above the national average. Using the five-year average from 2011 through 2015 across 19 major private industry sectors, data compiled by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics show Montana outpacing the national average in every sector.

That trend is also reflected in the state’s workers’ compensation insurance premiums. Premiums in Montana were the highest in the nation as recently as 2010, according to national rankings released every other year as part of the Oregon Workers' Compensation Premium Rate Ranking Study. The state has improved since then, with the 2014 and 2016 reports ranking Montana as having the 11th-highest premiums.

Don Judge is a lobbyist with the Injured Workers’ Resource Council and a member of the state’s Labor-Management Advisory Council, a panel led by Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney that advises the governor’s office on workers’ compensation issues. Both Judge and Strauss think Montana’s high percentage of small businesses contributes to its workplace safety issues, but they acknowledge there’s no hard data to back up that theory.

“Small employers really lack the finances and personnel for safety training, for safety equipment, for staff meetings and even the time to conduct safety training or safety meetings,” Judge said.

He added, “We also have an attitude in Montana, which is for employers and employees both, to ‘just get ‘er done.’”

Making Montana workers safer

Over the long term, national statistics indicate that Montana’s workplaces have gotten safer.

In 2008, the statewide rate of 6.9 injuries for every 100 workers placed it second only to Maine, and 2.5 points above the national average.

“We’re not catching up as fast as we’d like with the national average, but we are seeing some improvement,” Strauss said.

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Last year, the state spent $2.8 million, including some money from federal grants, to pay for a range of workplace safety programs from compliance enforcement to free consultations for businesses and other outreach efforts. One of those programs, SafetyFest, brings state safety officials to different cities four times per year, where they offer free training sessions during the course of several days.

Strauss said they also offer an opportunity to speak with private employers about how to address industry-specific safety challenges.

“We ask people what’s going on, but unfortunately none of those outreach efforts have yielded anything specifically that we could focus on to drive improvement,” he said. “We’re stuck with a broad approach.”

Overall, the state’s injury rate by industry changed little from 2015 to 2016, although most economic sectors showed at least modest improvements. And several industries showed considerable improvements in their workplace injury rates, noted Peggy Coggeshall, a research analyst with the department’s Employment Relations Division.

The arts and entertainment sector, which also includes the state's fast-growing outdoor recreation industry, saw its rate drop to 1.4 injuries per 100 workers from a rate of 4.0 the year before. The educational services industry also declined by nearly 50 percent from 2015.

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The most common injuries continue to fall within the “sprains, strains and tears” category, responsible for 38 percent of the injuries reported last year.

There are limitations in the data, Coggeshall noted, due to federal reporting exemptions for some industries and businesses with 10 or fewer employees.

“A lot of our farms and ranches and agricultural entities tend to have less employees, and we don’t get a lot of information on them,” she said. “A lot of the farming community knows if they’re 10 or less, they don’t have to report.”

Looking forward

Workplace safety in Montana, and the lack thereof, is a frequent topic of debate in the state’s Legislature.

Although no major bills addressing the issue were introduced in this year’s regular session, legislation to allow Montana to begin assuming regulatory power held by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration was briefly considered during the 2015 session.

Sponsored by then-Rep. Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, the legislation had been one of two bills recommended by the Labor-Management Advisory Council to address the state’s long-held rank as one of the worst in the nation for worker injuries.

Hunter and other Democrats praised the bill as a way to customize enforcement and rule-making of workplace safety codes to better fit Montana.

But Republicans noted that the state would assume at least half of the costs of running the program, and questioned whether a new bureaucracy to enforce the same rules already being policed by the federal government would be an effective approach.

Business groups across the state also opposed the transfer of OSHA programs to the state level, including agriculture interests concerned that farmers and ranchers could lose exemptions to the reporting requirements that currently apply to agriculture businesses with 10 employees or fewer.

Throughout the interim, Judge said the labor council will be working to produce new potential reforms for lawmakers to consider in 2019. But echoing comments from legislators on both sides of the aisle, he also noted that changes are unlikely to result from government acting alone.

“I think we need more public awareness. The Department of Labor is willing to reach out and advertise and try to make the employers more aware of what’s available to them,” Judge said. “It’s an effort that has to come from employers, employees and government.”