Wyoming will remember its workers who have been killed on the job in a commemoration in Rock Springs on Friday.
It’s a somber event that serves to remind everyone in Wyoming of the impact of these losses on our families, our friends, and our communities. Mourning in public can be draining, but it also inspires renewed commitment to the idea that these deaths can be or should have been prevented.
Investigations by state Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors usually reveal a condition on the job site or choices made by employers or workers that produced the chain of events that ended in death. In recent years we’ve seen mining allowed in dense fog that ended with a bulldozer going over a cliff, killing the driver. A decision at another coal mine put workers in jeopardy as they followed a giant shovel up a ramp. A miner died when the shovel lost momentum, its brakes failed, and it rolled back and crushed his truck.
Workers in other occupations who know that company rules require using seatbelts simply don’t buckle up, then die in a rollover. Drilling companies have started rigs working before required safety railing is installed. Construction companies have failed to provide or make certain that their crews always use fall protection. A service company improperly stacked gear that then toppled on an employee and killed him.
A sugar factory worker fell into a beet processing pit because a floor opening wasn’t properly screened — and was ground to pieces.
We know these things happen because OSHA inspectors and other agencies take the time to determine how a workplace death occurred. It’s essential work that enables us to prevent these tragedies in the future. We identify mistakes and, if we have the will, correct them.
We’ve read the stories about death in Wyoming’s traditional work arenas that have long been known for their hazards. In her 2015 report “Work-related Fatal Injuries in Wyoming 2012-2015,” State Epidemiologist Meredith Towle identified the leading causes of death in agriculture, oil and gas extraction, mining, and construction.
But there are other hazardous workplaces. This winter, following investigations by both OSHA and climbing rangers working in Grand Teton National Park, we learned that a problematic knot led to the death of mountain guide Gary Falk when he fell from the Grand Teton on July 23, 2016.
Workers have a right to a safe workplace. Employers must understand and address known dangers. The recreation industry is subject to the same requirement to provide a safe workplace, even if it faces unconventional challenges.
OSHA’s investigation found that Exum Mountain Guides needed to be more diligent about safety and ordered it to document its work to improve safety awareness among its employees.
“What we need is a good inspection program of all the gear that the guides are using,” Nat Patridge, president of Exum Mountain Guides told WyoFile. “We’re going to have our health and safety office and the chief guides visually inspect all the guides’ gear that they will use at Exum while they’re guiding.”
As for the knot that failed Gary Falk? “You have to make sure it’s tied perfectly,” Partridge said. “The knot always needs to be inspected every use.”
OSHA investigations remain a key to Wyoming’s long effort to improve its dismal fatality rate. The agency does its work with a too-small staff that needs more support from the state Legislature. Wyoming needs to conduct more inspections before workers are killed or injured. The Lovell sugar factory where the worker died in 2014 had never been inspected by OSHA before her death.
Gov. Mead, Senate President Eli Bebout and the legislators who say they don’t want to see Wyoming’s workers injured or killed should determine how to ramp up the division’s budget. They need to provide the resources OSHA needs to inspect job sites before people die. Protecting the state’s workforce is critical to a thriving economy and to healthy, happy families and communities.
The 2017 Workers’ Memorial Day commemoration starts at 4 p.m. at the Holiday Inn in Rock Springs. The sponsors have invited attendees to “bring a picture of your loved one to place on a display honoring Wyoming workers who have been injured or killed on the job.” See you there.
(Dan Neal served as WyoFile’s interim executive editor this winter. Before retiring in 2015, he was the director of the Equality State Policy Center, one of the sponsors of the annual Wyoming Workers Memorial Day.)
Inclement weather prevented commemoration of Workers Memorial Day as planned in Rock Springs, sponsors of the event noted on their Facebook page Friday — Ed.