What value does Wyoming place on the lives of workers who are killed on the job?
Insultingly to their survivors, and what should be considered offensive to the rest of us: very little.
Wyoming doesn’t automatically penalize employers whose safety violations result in the deaths of workers, but that would change under a bill a legislative committee narrowly voted to sponsor earlier this week.
Under the proposal, companies with less than 250 employees could be fined up to $50,000 if they “willfully and knowingly” contribute to causing the death of a worker. The fine would be non-negotiable. Companies with 250 or more employees, meanwhile, could receive fines up to $250,000.
The Joint Interim Labor, Health and Social Services Committee voted 8-6 to sponsor the measure, which would also raise the amount the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) can fine companies for “serious” violations up to $12,000. The current maximum fine for each serious violation is $7,000.
If the bill passes at the general session that begins Jan. 13, it would be landmark legislation for Wyoming, which has continually ranked at or near the bottom of states’ workplace fatalities per capita. Last year its fatality rate was only exceeded by North Dakota.
In 2010, the last time the Legislature tried to increase OSHA penalties for safety violations, the bill even had the support of the oil and gas industry, which acknowledged companies with poor safety records deserve to be punished. But after passing the House, the measure died on a 15-15 tie vote in the Senate.
The new proposal was suggested to the labor committee by Mary Jane Collins of Sheridan, whose 20-year-old grandson Brett died in a construction accident in 2012. She wanted to see a mandatory $50,000 fine, but the panel changed it to “up to” that amount.
The company that employed Brett Collins, COP Construction, was originally fined $13,860 by Wyoming OSHA. The amount was reduced to $6,773 after yearlong negotiations between the agency, company officials and their lawyers. The amount of the fine related directly to Collins’ death was only $2,363.
“I just think that the companies that operate in Wyoming need to understand that there are penalties for unsafe practices because it isn’t right to take our young lives,” Mrs. Collins recently told The Associated Press.
Champions of the bill include Rep. Mary Throne (D-Cheyenne), who introduced the 2010 proposal, and Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper), co-chairman of the committee.
Scott and Throne both told their colleagues it’s time for the state to send a strong message that Wyoming’s poor record of workplace deaths and safety violations is unacceptable.
“What’s really important is that we want to get a safety culture such that we don’t have the level of workplace deaths that we do,” Scott said.
Wyoming’s first occupational state epidemiologist, Timothy Ryan, who began examining workplace deaths in the state in 2010, quit in frustration two years later over the Legislature’s failure to pass any of his recommendations on how to reduce fatalities. Upon his departure he issued a blistering report to Gov. Matt Mead, charging that “workplace safety is an afterthought” in Wyoming, which is in desperate need of “a culture of safety.”
While there were eight members of the 14-member labor committee who supported the bill, several others bashed the proposal as an attempt to punish companies right out of business.
Sen. James Anderson (R-Casper) argued that the proposed $250,000 fine is too high for larger companies. “Some are going to be destroyed by this…. More fines are not going to stop deaths,” he said, but his amendment to reduce the maximum fine failed.
More fines are not going to stop deaths – Sen. Anderson
Another business protectionist, Sen. Ray Petersen (R-Cowley), maintained that because of the type of dangerous work Wyomingites do in the energy, construction and agricultural industries, combined with the state’s low population, the state’s workplace fatality rate will always look worse than it is.
“No matter what we do here, no matter how safe we try to make our jobs in Wyoming, we’re always going to be among the top three in the nation,” he said. Actually, that’s the bottom three.
Dan Neal, recently retired executive director of the Equality State Policy Center, and now a consultant for the good government coalition, wasn’t surprised at all by the pro-business comments.
“Business interests are really strong in Wyoming and the Legislature is fearful that they’ll do something that the business community will come back and say, ‘You’re harming business,'” Neal said. “They put business interests ahead of worker safety interests.”
Rep. Elaine Harvey (R-Lovell), co-chairman of the panel, initially sounded sympathetic to people who have lost family members to workplace accidents. She talked about how such families “want justice” and to know their loved ones’ lives are valued by the state.
But Harvey also said it should be up to OSHA, not legislators, to determine what caused an accident and what type of fine should be levied. She noted sometimes the workers, and not the employers, are at fault.
“There’s not an amount of money that satisfies that value of a life,” Harvey said. She added that while the reasoning to impose extra penalties for fatalities is that it would prevent fatalities from happening, “They’re not going to stop.”
Rep. Norine Kasperik (R-Gillette) claimed OSHA already has the ability to increase penalties if they feel companies are in violation of safety standards.
“The penalties are harsh for companies that are stepping up and creating a culture of safety,” she said.
Harsh penalties? Perhaps Kasperik would like to tell that to Ed Simmons of Casper, whose son, Anthony, died in a construction accident in 2013. He expected his son’s employer would have to pay a significant fine — after all, OSHA investigators told him the company had been cited for 22 safety violations, including seven that were determined to be factors in Anthony’s death.
The initial fine totaled $85,000, but over the course of a year, the state reduced the amount to slightly under $20,000. Simmons was shocked to learn it was all the company would have to pay, and he worried that other people’s children could die in similar accidents because the amount was so small it probably wouldn’t lead the company to make the kind of safety changes it needs.
He also looked at the report and said he couldn’t understand why it took a year to write three pages about the accident.
Sadly, the experiences of Ed Simmons, Mary Jane Collins and many other survivors are the norm, not the exception. Their loved ones’ lives were given minimal value by the state — and that should anger all of us.