Brett Collins

Mary Jane Collins comforts her grandson, Coen Cunningham, as he speaks about his late stepbrother, Brett Collins, in September 2014 at the family’s home in Ranchester. Collins, 20, was killed Aug. 20, 2012, after being struck in the head with a track hoe bucket while working for COP Construction at the Big Goose water treatment plant, outside Sheridan.

Ryan Dorgan, Star-Tribune

A little-noticed provision in the recently passed federal budget achieved what has alluded Wyoming labor advocates for years: stiffer penalties on companies that break safety laws. 

The budget amendment, which marks the first adjustment in federal safety fines since 1990, caught labor advocates, industry representatives and state officials by surprise. Many said they did not learn of the change until weeks later. 

"Even after the budget was signed, it was several days before we learned about it," said John Ysebaert, administrator of the Wyoming Occupational Safety and Health Administration. "We did some research and lo and behold it’s true."

The change means Wyoming legislators will need to update the state's penalties in the budget session that begins next year, Ysebaert said, noting the state's current fines are established by statute. Federal law requires Wyoming, as the administrator of its own OSHA program, to have standards at least as stringent as its national counterpart. 

Under the new penalty structure, fines will be annually adjusted to account for inflation. One large increase will be instituted by next August to reflect an approximately 80 percent increase in the Consumer Price Index, a basket of products used to track inflation, over the last 25 years. Willful violations, the more stringent penalty issued by OSHA, will rise from $70,000 to roughly $125,000. Serious violations will increase from $7,000 to $12,500. 

Safety advocates praised the move, but said more work needed to be done to improve workplace conditions in the state. 

Mary Jane Collins, a Sheridan resident who has pushed for stiffer fines after her grandson was killed in a 2012 construction incident, called the change a "step in the right direction." However, she noted the new penalties are still negotiable and said the state should consider a non-negotiable fatality fine. Her family is now pushing for a change in Wyoming OSHA rules, establishing a new fatality violation where a penalty cannot be lowered. State officials have said they are reviewing the legality of the proposal.   

"It's the same, nothing's changed," Collins said when asked if the higher OSHA penalties would improve workplace safety. Referring to the number of workers killed in Wyoming last year, she added,"If it’s 37, someone gets killed every 10 days."

Higher penalties do little to improve workplace conditions, said Don Burkhart, a safety engineer who represents Rawlins in the state Legislature. The Republican lawmaker said a collaborative approach has proven more effective in reducing workplace deaths, like the state's efforts to establish industry safety alliances and offer consultations to companies on how to reduce workplace risks. 

Burkhart equated safety fines to speeding tickets. "Do they keep people from speeding? I don’t think they really do," he said. 

Fines for safety violations have been fiercely debated in the Cowboy State for years. Wyoming has long ranked as one of the most dangerous states in the country to work, due in large part to the high number of people employed in dangerous sectors like energy and agriculture. In 2014, 37 people died on the job in Wyoming, according to federal figures. That represented a 42 percent increase over the year prior. 

However, efforts to make penalties more stringent have largely been unsuccessful. A measure backed by Collins that would have increased fines for violations resulting in a fatality died in the Senate this year.

Congress approved the budget on Oct. 30. It was signed into law by President Barack Obama three days later.

Federal OSHA is still reviewing the national legislation and is likely to issue guidance on how to comply with the rule in January, Ysebaert said. The state will reach out to employers to help them comply with the new standards, he said.

Many said they were still reviewing the change. 

"We want to see what they come out with," said Bonnie Cannon, communications director at the Wyoming Contractors Association. But she expressed concern over raising safety penalties. "We feel we’re absolutely committed to safety in the workplace. We think there is more to safety than just penalties. Employers need to be positive and proactive."

But labor advocates said they would continue to advocate for stiffer fines. The federal fines are so low that some violators chalk the penalties up to a cost of business, said Dan Neal, a volunteer for the Equality State Policy Center's Wyoming Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health Project. Wyoming needs to approach workplace safety as it has drunk driving, in making the penalties so stiff that they force a change in attitude. 

The majority of employers have little to fear from such a shift, Neal said, noting that only violators would be subject to the more stringent standards. 

"Let’s make failure to comply painful," he said. 

Follow energy reporter Benjamin Storrow on Twitter @bstorrow.

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