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CHEYENNE — National and state groups are calling for higher fines and more inspections to prevent workplace accidents and deaths in Wyoming.
The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health released a report on Tuesday that includes a recommendation for states to adopt stricter workplace safety regulations.
Tom O’Connor, executive director of the group, said many of the 4,600 worker deaths that were reported nationwide in 2011 were preventable.
He said states that are reliant on energy jobs are especially vulnerable to avoidable accidents.
“The booming energy industry has created a lot of jobs. But it also created intense pressure for production that often leads to unsafe working conditions,” he said.
“Hardly a week goes by when we don’t hear about another disaster in the energy industry.”
Wyoming’s rate of worker fatalities per capita routinely ranks among the highest in the country.
Twenty-nine workers died in the state during 2011, the latest year from which data is available. That is a slight improvement from 2010 when the state reported 33 deaths.
The National Council for Occupational Safety published a list of measures that states and the federal government can take to reduce the risks of on-the-job accidents.
Among its recommendations is that states set or increase the minimum penalties they impose for workplace safety violations that result in a death.
It suggests that states require their Occupational Safety and Health Administration fines to be at least $25,000 for serious violations resulting in a death and $50,000 for repeat or willful violation resulting in a death.
Wyoming’s law sets the civil penalty at no more than $7,000 for most violations. That changes to between $5,000 and $70,000 if an employer “willfully and knowingly” violates the state’s OSHA Act.
The state has rejected several proposals over the years to increase those fines for cases that result in a death.
Instead, the Legislature has passed several measures during the past two years to encourage the energy industry to adopt voluntary safety reforms.
This includes the state’s hiring of more “courtesy inspectors” who identify safety issues but do not cite or fine companies.
In addition, a bill was passed during the past session to offer employers discounts on their worker’s compensation premiums if they complete a safety program.
Speaker of the House Rep. Tom Lubnau, R-Gillette, was the sponsor of that bill. He said he prefers this approach to higher penalties.
“I don’t think you change intrinsic behavior with sticks,” he said shortly after introducing the proposal before the 2013 session. “You best change behavior through positive reinforcement.”
Rep. Mary Throne, D-Cheyenne, unsuccessfully pushed a bill during the 2012 session that would have increased the OSHA fines if a violation resulted in a death.
Throne said Tuesday she is willing to wait a short time to see if the “carrot” rather than the “stick” approach works. But she said the state should consider raising the penalties if significant progress is not made.
“It would want to see improvements pretty quickly since, after all, we are talking about people’s lives here,” she said.
Dan Neal is the executive director of the Equality State Policy Center. It partnered with The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health on the report.
He also suggested that the state hire more OSHA inspectors who are authorized to fine companies instead of just increasing courtesy inspections.
“The culture never really changes unless you move toward the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (model of more frequent mandatory inspections),” he said.
Wyoming occupational fatalities by year
Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries