Rep. Don Burkhart (R-Rawlins) spent his career as a safety engineer, at the forefront of preventing workplace injuries and fatalities that plague Wyoming’s mineral industry.
Perhaps the most direct action he took happened at the Antelope Mine in the Powder River Basin in the 1980s. He convinced a contractor ready to jump off a silo to his death to come back inside the handrail. He drove the worker to a psychiatric hospital and signed him in as a friend.
“I don’t think mental health issues should be the stigma they are in Wyoming,” Burkhart said. “If you break a leg, you go to a doctor and fix it. Mental health issues are the same way. Sometimes people need assistance to take care of things.”
A year later he saw the same worker at the mall in Casper, with his wife and a newborn child.
“That is one of the things in my life I am most proud of, is to help get someone like that help,” Burkhart said. “If he had jumped, the devastation would have been incalculable.”
While mental health situations sometimes came up, Burkhart’s main focus was on daily safety measures to prevent explosions, equipment accidents, and car crashes, which are the leading causes of workplace deaths in Wyoming. His aim as a safety engineer was to have all workers go home to their families at night, he said.
He worked for coal mines around Hanna and Douglas in the 1980s, and for oil and gas operations at Bairoil and Wamsutter during the 1990s and 2000s. He also worked as a nuclear safety contractor at the Nevada Test Site and Rocky Flats in Colorado, then for BP until his retirement in 2014.
Burkhart said he believes that imposing higher one-time fines for companies that have workplace fatalities won’t help prevent accidents. Instead, he favors the existing approach of levying higher workers’ compensation premiums, which have a multi-year effect on companies’ profits. For example, he knew of a construction company that had a good safety record and therefore a low workers’ compensation premium, which allowed the company to underbid its competitors and consistently win more jobs.
Unfortunately, not all companies appreciate the financial benefits of working safely, Burkhart said. Some accidents, like driving dangerously on the way to work, aren’t something that employers have full control over. He believes Wyoming needs to change its culture, a long and slow process.
“We can still make a lot of progress in this state with safety,” he said. “There is nothing un-manly about being safe. Wyoming is not the last macho frontier.”
Raised in western Pennsylvania, Burkhart graduated from John Carroll University in 1970 with a degree in physics. Three weeks later, he married “the girl across the street, literally.” They’ve now been married 45 years, and have lived in Rawlins for the last 24.
“Rawlins has a lot of advantages that people don’t see,” he said. That includes a young population, a revitalized downtown, and great access to the outdoors. “I can be on Blue Ribbon trout waters in an hour, and on a wilderness area in little over more than that,” he said. “If I want complete solitude, I can go out in the Red Desert.”
Burkhart initially ran for the Legislature after hearing from a member of the Joint Appropriations Committee that spending was out of control and that there was nothing to be done about it. Unsatisfied with that conclusion, Burkhart ran and won in 2010, having never held public office before.
He serves on the Joint Appropriations Committee. The committee has the most influence on the state budget, but it also requires a major time commitment, meeting for nearly two months straight before each budget session.
“Because we meet most of December I need to do my Christmas shopping in November,” Burkhart said. “We look at every single state agency line by line.”
He serves as the committee’s liaison to the Retirement System, a role that brought criticism in 2013 after he gave a presentation about the Wyoming Retirement System at a Wyoming Liberty Group event on private property. The Liberty Group turned away a group of union firemen, saying the event was not public, though two union representatives did attend. Burkhart said there was nothing nefarious about his informational presentation, and that he later gave a similar presentation to volunteer firemen at their request.
Burkhart differs with many union members in that he does not believe in cost of living adjustments, which increase pension payouts to keep up with inflation. He says such increases have the ability to upset the long-term viability of a pension fund. However, he agrees with many state workers who favor defined benefit plans that promise a certain level of retirement funds to workers. Public pension managers nationwide are under pressure from groups like the American Enterprise Institute to eliminate such pensions and go to defined contribution systems where employees manage their own retirement investments at their own risk.
“The defined benefit tends to work better in the public sector,” Burkhart said. “I don’t see any benefit to move that at this time. The state will stay with a defined benefit plan.”
Burkhart hopes to restore viability of the Fireman-A pension account, which is underfunded and closed to new members since 1981. The fund could run out of money for its 600 beneficiaries in 17 years. Fixing it would require reducing benefits, or an infusion of money from the state or from towns and counties.
“Nobody is willing to give on their side,” Burkhart said. “With Fireman-A, my concern is there is money there for everyone, maybe not as much as they are getting, but that there is money for everyone.”
For more information on Rep. Burkhart click here.
— For more on workplace safety matters, read Top 7 causes of worker deaths in Wyoming.