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

Mary Jane Collins finds hope in the legislative defeat her family suffered earlier this year.

The Collinses were vocal supporters of a bill that would have increased fines on employers found to have violated safety standards that resulted in an employee's death. The bill cleared a Senate committee before failing to reach the floor of the full chamber for a vote. Sen. Eli Bebout, the majority leader, blocked the measure, saying he felt it had progressed through committee without sufficient time for debate.

"It didn’t feel like a defeat because it got as far as it did," Collins said recently. A long line of previous efforts to strengthen Wyoming's workplace safety laws failed to progress, she noted. 

Wyoming has long ranked as one of the most dangerous states in the country to work. A recent state report found 34 people died on the job in 2014, a 60 percent increase over the year before. Wyoming has recorded the second-highest rate of workplace fatalities in each of the last three years. Only North Dakota was more dangerous.  

Against that backdrop, Collins has emerged as one of the loudest voices in Wyoming for strengthening the state's workplace safety laws. Her grandson, Brett, was killed when he was struck in the head by an excavator bucket in 2012.

She has been a consistent presence at legislative meetings and workers' memorials, lending her voice to efforts she hopes will prevent accidents like the one that killed her grandson. He was 20 at the time of his death, two days short of starting classes at Sheridan College. 

Her attention is now focused on reforming the regulations that govern how the Wyoming Occupational Safety and Health Administration treats safety violations resulting in a fatality.

Fatality violation

Collins is pushing for a new type of safety violation. OSHA currently has willful, serious and repeat violations. But the agency does not consider the result of a violation. 

Collins' proposal, yet to be finalized and submitted, would create a fatality violation. Companies would not be able to reduce a fatality fine through negotiations, as happens with other types of violations, she said. 

The issue is a sensitive one for the Collins family. Brett Collins' employer, Cop Construction, was initially fined $13,860. That was later reduced to $6,773. The fine was broken into two parts: $4,410 for inadequate safety training and $2,363 for Brett's presence in the trench where he was killed -- a serious violation under OSHA standards. The young man's family say he was following orders at the time.  

"If a company is not operating safely, I don’t feel they should be rewarded by having their fines reduced," Collins said. "We want the result of a violation to be dealt with in a different manner than a serious or willful safety violation."

She plans on submitting the proposal to the Wyoming OSHA Commission, which oversees the agency. Her hope is that the commission can change state OSHA's regulations without approval from the Legislature.

The state has already begun  making changes in how it treats violations resulting in a fatality, said John Ysebaert, the agency administrator.

Wyoming OSHA adopted an internal procedure of levying a full fine against companies found to have committed a violation resulting in a death, he said. The administration is now in talks with the state Attorney General's office over whether the practice can be adopted as official policy, he said. 

"When a citation directly contributed to a fatality, there are no reductions applied to that," he said.  

The maximum penalty for a "serious" violation under federal regulations is $7,000. An increase in the fine would require approval of the state Legislature, which can choose to exceed the federal standard. 

Opposition unclear

It remains to be seen if Collins' latest proposal will face significant opposition when it goes before the Wyoming OSHA commission.

Dennis Shepard, a commissioner, said he sympathized with the family, but expressed concern about how the proposal would be implemented. 

"How do you distinguish between employers who are doing everything possible and the employers who do nothing," he said. 

Critics of the fine legislation have previously pointed out the majority of workplace fatalities in Wyoming are the result of traffic accidents, an area outside OSHA's jurisdiction. Of the 34 people killed on the job in Wyoming during 2014, 16 died in transportation incidents, the recent state report found. 

Safety advocates dismiss that criticism. If Wyoming wants to address traffic deaths, it should enact a seat-belt law, they say. But traffic deaths are not an excuse to ignore dangerous conditions at job sites, they contend. 

Wyoming has the highest percentage of workers nationally employed in high-risk sectors like mining and agriculture, according to the state's report. Ensuring the maximum fatality fine is paid is a deterrent for employers that ignore safety standards, advocates contend.  

"We’re not saying that every fatality is a penalty. We’re saying every violation that results in a death is a penalty," said Peg Seminario, director of health and safety at the AFL-CIO, a union.

Collins, a Sheridan resident, remains as determined as ever. She has not given up on the legislative route, noting her family will again call for an increase in fatality fines when the Legislature convenes in 2017 for a general session. But with lawmakers unlikely to take up the proposal in the 2016 budget session, Collins said the state can ill afford to wait that long. 

In the meantime, she refers daily to a quote from Rose Kennedy, the late mother of former President John F. Kennedy. It reads:

"It has been said that time heals all wounds. I don’t agree. The wounds remain. Time -- the mind, protecting its sanity -- covers them with some scar tissue and the pain lessens, but it is never gone."

Collins has sought to channel her pain into action, her anger hardened into determination. Some days are more difficult than others, but she still presses forward. 

"What’s done is done," she observed. "All we can do is try and move forward and try and change what may be done in the future."  

Follow energy reporter Benjamin Storrow on Twitter @bstorrow

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