Work Safety

2012 Look Back: Wyoming takes steps toward safer workplaces

2012-12-26T06:00:00Z 2013-08-31T00:55:30Z 2012 Look Back: Wyoming takes steps toward safer workplacesBy ADAM VOGE Star-Tribune energy reporter Casper Star-Tribune Online

State agencies and staff encouraging and enforcing Wyoming workplace safety recite a similar mantra: It's going to take time.

Overseers of the Wyoming Occupational Health and Safety Administration and a policy adviser to Gov. Matt Mead are happy with the progress the state -- traditionally a leader in worker deaths per capita -- made in 2012. But they know they've yet to accomplish their larger goals.

"Changing the culture of safety in Wyoming is not going to happen overnight," said Hayley Douglass, public information officer for Wyoming OSHA. "We’re asking for a collective effort from employers and employees to shift the safety culture."

Timothy Ryan, the state's former occupational epidemiologist, abruptly quit in December 2011 after identifying what he perceived was a lack of safety culture among Wyoming employers.

Ryan told the New York Times after his resignation that the state's Legislature is "not interested" in any new regulations that have to do with safety.

The state in July replaced Ryan with Mack Sewell, who previously filled the same position in New Mexico. Sewell recently said he spent his first six months on the job acquainting himself with Wyoming's key facts, figures and faces. He added that he's already impressed with the attitude in Wyoming.

"I got the sense that people really wanted to do something about (worker safety)," he said.

Sewell has also been working to create a system which would make workplace fatality statistics more accessible to the public.

Wyoming's workplace death rates tailed off in the past two years. Twenty-nine workers were killed in 2011, while year-to-date numbers accurate in mid-December showed 22 died in 2012. The same metric spent much of the 2000s above 40 worker deaths each year, reaching 48 in 2007.

Sewell began his job in the wake of at least a couple of state-backed worker safety measures passed during the 2012 legislative session. Among measures passed by state lawmakers were a bill to create more OSHA safety consultant positions and a bill that provided a $500,000 grant program for small oil and gas companies seeking safety equipment.

Nearly all of the consultant positions have been filled. Gary Hartman, a policy adviser to Mead, said 14 applications for about $10,000 each in safety equipment have been filed with the state and await review.

At least a couple of bills failed to pass. One would have made not wearing a seat belt a cause for being pulled over, the other would have increased OSHA penalties for safety violations.

Hartman thinks the 2012 session went well, but said there's more work to be done.

"We were successful," he said. "The Wyoming Legislature did a couple of good things this year."

Other agencies also worked to change safety rules in 2012. OSHA and the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission teamed to adopt in October rules mandating fire-resistant clothing within 75 feet of oil and gas bore holes. The commission also voted to require emergency shut-off devices on diesel engines in the same area.

The agencies to look forward to continued progress in 2013. Sewell said he's had limited interaction with state legislators but is hoping to forge a strong bond when the session begins Jan. 8.

At least one worker safety bill has already been proposed for the 2013 session. Rep. Tom Lubnau, R-Gillette, sponsored legislation that would allow companies to receive discounts in worker compensation insurance in exchange for participation in the state's workplace safety program.

Sewell hopes to use 2013 to expand his worker fatality program and would also like it to eventually include worker injuries that aren't fatal.

"It’s going to be a lot of work to get that set up," he said. "Hopefully at some point next year we’ll have something to share."

Meanwhile, the state cooperated in the formation of the Wyoming Refinery Safety Alliance in 2012, an organization created in response to a series of fires at the Sinclair Wyoming Refinery near Rawlins.

The group consists of all six Wyoming refineries and at least one chemical plant. It has met to discuss experiences and solutions every month since July and recently started inviting OSHA representatives to meetings to present safety information. The alliance hopes to continue to grow next year.

The governor's office and state OSHA also plan to reach out to representatives from different industries -- transportation, agriculture and construction included. Their purpose is to establish private-public safety cooperatives like the Wyoming Oil and Gas Industry Safety Alliance, a years-old group which many at the state level praises for its efforts, and the Wyoming Refinery Safety Alliance.

"I think progress is being made," Sewell said. "If everyone in Wyoming had a desk job, I think our rates would be a little different. But that’s not the way it is."

Reach energy reporter Adam Voge at 307-266-0561, or at adam.voge@trib.com. Read his blog at http://trib.com/news/opinion/blogs/boom or follow him on Twitter @vogeCST.

Copyright 2015 Casper Star-Tribune Online. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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