Workplace Safety

Instructor Dan Pierson, center, works with trainees on safety harness training on Sept. 4, 2013, inside a retired gas rig at the McMurry Training Center in Casper. Worker deaths in the state did not change from 2015 to 2016.

File, Star-Tribune

Thirty four people died on the job in Wyoming in 2016, the same as the year before. The workers were a cross section of the most well-known careers in the Cowboy State, from truck drivers and coal miners to agricultural workers and oilmen, according to a workplace fatalities report released Thursday by the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services’ Research and Planning division.

Wyoming’s fatalities stand out nationally, where 36 of the 50 states saw an increase in workplace deaths.

The 2016 report is compiled in collaboration with the Bureau of Labor Statistics and is the “gold standard” for comparing workplace fatalities across the states. The data is drawn from a variety of sources, including OSHA, coroner and police reports.

Six people in Wyoming’s agricultural sector died working in 2016 and four in mining or oil and gas.

Transportation incidents represented 41 percent of the fatalities, which falls below the long-term, national trend of 56 percent. Not all of the workplace fatalities in transportation were Wyomingites; many are counted in the state statistics because those individuals died within the borders, such as truckers involved in highway crashes, said David Ballard, a state economist who co-authored the report

There is some evidence that transportation safety has improved, the economists said. Though in regard to those traveling in state, Wyoming regulators have less control over the safety measures of those out-of-state companies, he said.

The fatalities count also includes suicides that happen at work.

It’s difficult to pinpoint why fatalities go up and down as they are often the result of random accidents, Ballard said.

“The movement year to year doesn’t necessarily mean that workplaces have become a lot safer or more dangerous,” he said. “Wyoming, to hold steady, that does seem to be some good news compared to what is going on in most other places.”

In part, economic improvements can mean more workers are on the job increasing the potential for serious incidents that lead to fatalities, he said.

That’s an observation that is especially relevant in places like Wyoming when looking at deaths in the oil and gas sector.

The state is often ranked as one of the worst states for worker death, leading to periodic pushes for change. The state’s high death rate is in part due to the percentage of the workforce employed in dangerous professions like the oil or gas fields, some say.

“I think it’s a really safe assumption that our numbers go up and down with the boom and bust cycle with the energy economy,” said Meredith Towle, state epidemiologist. That trend has been noted by national studies, she said.

Workplace deaths over the last two decades peaked in 2007, when 48 Wyoming workers died on the job. At the time, the gas fields were booming and crude oil was priced around $75 a barrel, adjusted for inflation.

Over the last few years, particularly in 2015 and 2016, oil and gas economies tanked.

“That may explain why fatalities did not increase here,” said Ballard, the state economist.

The boom and bust phenomenon has been less true of fatalities in Wyoming’s other strong fossil fuel economy, coal, which has until recently been a less tumultuous market than oil and gas. It’s also a less scattered industry.

With a single location and the presence of federal and state inspectors, mines are more contained. Oil and gas, on the other hand, has thousands of well sites and a multitude of contractors working at a given drilling site, said Towle.

“Coalescing around a common safety practice is hard when you are talking about so many different employers and so many different sites,” she said.

Towle puts out an annual fatalities report that details the circumstances of each death in Wyoming, comparing those incidents to previous years. The 2017 report is not yet available.

“Things don’t really change all that much from one year to the next,” Towle said. “You have to look at that data in a historical way to see trends.”

What is the long-term look at Wyoming deaths on the job?

“There hasn’t been any sustained change in workplace fatalities in Wyoming in quite a long time,” she said.

Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner


Energy Reporter

Heather Richards writes about energy and the environment. A native of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, she moved to Wyoming in 2015 to cover natural resources and government in Buffalo. Heather joined the Star Tribune later that year.

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