(Opinion) — It was bad enough when the federal government paid 60 percent less for a worker safety inspection program than it agreed to, but Wyoming officials reached their breaking point when the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) made them justify spending $1.98 to buy some batteries.
“The federal bureaucracy that was conducting the work was pretty onerous,” said John Ysebaert, Wyoming OSHA’s administrator. “It was to the point of being ridiculous.” Wyoming was supposed to pay only 10 percent of the cost of workplace safety inspections, but it was actually picking up 70 percent of the tab.
Paperwork requirements were so cumbersome it took inspectors up to a day and a half just to fill out their timesheets, he said. “We knew there had to be a better way to do this.”
The Wyoming Department of Workforce Services took nine of its 13 safety inspectors and formed a new state agency, the Workers’ Compensation Safety and Risk Unit. The state revamped its program of courtesy inspections so it is 100 percent funded by the state. “We’re not spending a penny more than we were when we were all under the [federal] OSHA arm,” Ysebaert said. “I wish we had thought of it five years earlier.”
The overriding issue is a problem that is literally a matter of life or death in Wyoming — how does the state reduce its worst-in-the-nation rate of workplace fatalities? According to federal figures, 37 people died on the job in this sparsely populated state in 2014. It marked a 42 percent increase compared to the previous year.
Many of the workplace deaths are in the dangerous oil and gas industries, and more than half involve some type of vehicle accident that kills a Wyoming worker. The high number of workplace deaths and serious injuries are due to the lack of a “culture of safety” in the workplace, said Dan Neal, former director of the Equality State Policy Center and a current Democratic candidate for House District 56.
“I think there’s a sense out there by many employees — whether it’s justified or not — that if they make a complaint about a safety situation they may face some sort of sanction from their employer,” Neal said. “At smaller companies if someone points out a safety problem it may determine whether the company makes a profit that week or not.”
Working in a healthy and safe environment isn’t a privilege, it’s a right. Wyoming’s latest effort to improve worker safety appears to have a good chance to reduce on-the-job fatalities if it remains focused in its commitment to that fundamental axiom.
One of the keys to the new safety unit is that by asking for free courtesy inspections by the state, companies begin the process by making a firm commitment to the safety of their workers and agree to fix any hazardous situation that is found, Ysebaert said. In exchange for completely following its recommendations, the state agrees not to impose penalties or fines against the companies.
Under federal OSHA, Ysebaert estimated it would take about 50 years for safety inspectors in Wyoming to make a single contact with every employer in the state. Of course that’s totally unacceptable. But after the first three months of operating the completely state-funded unit, “They’re doing four or five safety consultations for every one they were able to do under the federal government,” he said.
Since April the new state safety unit has contacted 192 employers and conducted 110 workplace assessments, he said.
Another vital factor is that while OSHA previously waited for an employer to request the state come in and perform a free courtesy inspection, now the state can initiate hazard assessment reviews by analyzing workers’ compensation data. “We looked at who has had the most deaths and the most severe injuries and said, ‘Let’s make those contacts first,’” Ysebaert said. “We try to identify the companies where the employer has the greatest safety risk and exposure, and have gone to them directly.”
The change may represent the best chance for Wyoming to be proactive and fix hazardous conditions before they injure or kill someone. So far the employers the state has worked with have all been cooperative. Any refusal to follow the state’s safety recommendations could still result in inspectors notifying OSHA’s compliance division. In that case, a company could face penalties and fines imposed by the federal government.
In its first three months the workers’ compensation safety unit hasn’t encountered such a problem, and Ysebaert said he doesn’t think one is likely to occur. “If we had a situation where we found a hazard where there was imminent danger on the high end and the employer absolutely refused to fix it — which for the life of me I can’t imagine — we would notify OSHA compliance,” the state administrator said. “But these are highly skilled, educated people and I’m absolutely confident we can get their attention on any of these hazards.”
The nine inspectors are located throughout the state to make them quickly available to employers concerned about safety risks. Generally a single person conducts an inspection, but at times an expert in a particular field may accompany them. Ysebaert said a hospital safety assessment may take several days, while a roofing company review may be performed in half a day.
Wyoming’s Division of Workplace Services recently held its annual “Safety Summit” in Cheyenne. Employers and workers are recognized for safety accomplishments, including shutting down work operations when a safety hazard has been detected.
“The companies get recognition for doing it, and it encourages employees,” Neal said. “It’s a good move, but part of the problem is it’s difficult for Workforce Services to get publicity about this because it just doesn’t get the same kind of attention as an enforcement action.”
While he’s encouraged by the creation of the new safety unit, Neal said there are still many actions Wyoming needs to take to reduce workplace deaths.
“We need stronger whistleblower protection laws in this state,” the House candidate said. “Federal OSHA just raised penalties, so I think companies face more reasonable penalties for violations that occur. But remember, the people who break these laws are criminals faced with possible criminal sanctions if they’re found to be egregious enough.”
To reduce occupational deaths and injuries, Wyoming needs to hire more compliance staff, Neal said.
“The truth of the matter is that until we decide this issue is important enough to hire a compliance staff, we’re not going to see any great improvements in enforcement in Wyoming,” he said. “If they don’t have enough people to go onto these sites to see how things are being done, it’s a little like not having a police presence in your community. They need enough inspectors so they can get out and make sure these laws are being met.
“People who are following the law have nothing to worry about,” Neal said.
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