The gas, oil, and mining industries are booming in Wyoming. A new report shows that workplace fatalities are booming, too. From the New York Times:
A report compiled by an epidemiologist hired by the state and released on Jan. 3, found that Wyoming’s work sites lacked what it called a culture of safety and that proper safety procedures were not followed in the vast majority of cases when someone was killed on the job.
The report also noted that Wyoming had the highest workplace fatality rate in the country for all but one year from 2003 through 2008. In 2010, the last year that data was provided, Wyoming’s estimated occupational death rate was three and a half times the national average, the report said.
Granted, workers know going in that these are dangerous jobs. But this report emphasizes that proper safety procedures were not followed in most cases.
“We have a system where there’s no accountability, where the employer has no incentive to be responsive,” said John Vincent, a former mayor of Riverton, who has represented the families of dead and injured oil and gas workers in his law practice and has worked on the legislative effort. “People are afraid to sue. They won’t report injuries. They’ll just stay at home until they get better.”
The online publication New West Politics also covered this report. The fatality numbers in Wyoming did actually decrease in 2010 (when Montana took first place) but:
“More than half of the 16,000-plus jobs lost in Wyoming were in natural resource development and construction, and these bear the most dangerous occupational risks,” Wyoming state occupational epidemiologist Timothy Ryan told WyoFile in a recent interview.
Ryan fears that when the economy picks up and hiring resumes in the construction, oil, mining, and gas industries, the fatalities will also increase again.
A story from 2011 that illustrates the lack of "a culture of safety" in the workplace:
On January 5, Kyle Rooke, 42, of Drummond, Id., was struck by drilling mud when a standpipe valve failed on a drilling rig south of Pinedale. The drilling mud caught fire, according to the Wyoming Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Rooke died before medical responders arrived at the scene.
A Wyoming OSHA investigation revealed several alleged safety violations. Rooke wasn’t wearing flame-retardant clothing, and had the rig operator — Unit Drilling Co. — conducted a “protective equipment assessment” the company should have realized that flame-retardant clothing was necessary for the job Rooke was performing, according to Wyoming OSHA.
The investigation, according to OSHA officials, also found improperly functioning equipment related to the accident that should have been repaired, replaced or removed. As a result of those and other safety violations on the rig, Wyoming OSHA issued several citations to Unit Drilling Co., totaling $23,250 in fines. The company has until July 13 to contest the citations or agree to pay.
These fines are substantially higher than fines levied in the past.
The four workplace fatalities that Wyoming OSHA investigated in 2010 resulted in a total $9,125 in fines, according to federal OSHA documents. That’s an average $2,281 for violations contributing to the death of a worker.
Not exactly an incentive for the company to change - and a sorry commentary on how worker's lives are valued.
Other steps are being made to improve workplace safety in Wyoming. In June approximately 200 companies within the oil and gas industry formally signed an alliance with Wyoming OSHA. The Wyoming Oil and Gas Industry Safety Alliance (WOGISA) seeks to raise safety awareness, identify best practices and share training resources. Already in the works is a training program for “first-line” supervisors.
All worthy goals, and hopefully this alliance will have a positive impact on the worker safety issue in Wyoming. Of course there's nothing like having a report like this make national news to provide even more of an incentive to change.
A study on workplace safety done at the University of Michigan had some interesting results:
New research by Roland Zullo of the Institute for Research on Labor, Employment and the Economy shows that right-to-work laws result in the underfunding of safety training and accident-prevention activities.
Wyoming is a right-to-work-state.
Although he found no direct association between right-to-work laws and industry and occupation fatalities Zullo’s findings suggest that the estimated effect union density has on reducing worker deaths does depend on state right-to-work laws. In states without such laws, a 1 percent increase in union density correlates with a 0.35 percent decline in the ratio of industry fatalities and a 0.58 percent drop in the occupation fatality ratio.
“Unions appear to have a positive role in reducing construction industry and occupation fatalities, but only in states without right-to-work laws,” he said.
RTW may not be to blame for the high rate of worker fatalities in Wyoming, but it certainly hasn't helped. Zullo's research should be taken into consideration by any state considering a RTW law.
cross-posted at MainSt/workingamerica.org