The bell at the State Capitol tolled 35 times, once for every worker killed in 2012.
Workplace safety advocates marked Workers' Memorial Day in Cheyenne with family members of the deceased laborers on Monday in a bid to raise awareness about what they said are dangerous working conditions at some of the state's businesses. They argued higher fines and more inspectors are needed if Wyoming is to shed its reputation as one of the most dangerous states in the country to work.
The events of recent weeks underscored the situation, they said. Federal safety inspectors cited Arch Coal on Wednesday for a fatal accident at its Black Thunder Mine last summer, saying the company failed to correct known safety issues at the mine. That came a week after state regulators proposed a $201,000 fine for Sinclair Refinery near Rawlins relating to a September 2013 fire. In that instance, the refinery purposely disregarded or showed indifference to workplace safety standards, regulators said.
"In my opinion, it is the culture of safety. It is the mantra of 'we’re the company; you don’t shut down production no matter what,' " said Kim Floyd, executive secretary of the Wyoming AFL-CIO, a union. "Production at all costs. That is what we are fighting."
Wyoming, with its mineral-based economy, had the highest ratio of workplace deaths in the nation on five occasions between 2001 and 2010. The number of people killed on the job reached a five-year high in 2012, the most recent year for which numbers are available, when 35 laborers died at work. The state's ratio of workplace deaths per 100,000 workers was 12.2 for the year. By comparison, the national ratio never broke 5 between 2006 and 2011. Transportation-related accidents accounted for 17 of the 35 fatalities in 2012, followed by contact with equipment (7), violence by people or animals (4) and falls, slips and trips (4).
State officials have sought to rectify that trend in recent years, hiring seven new safety inspectors in 2012 and setting aside $500,000 to pay for safety training and equipment. The effort has been aided by the formation of several industry safety alliances, including those for the oil and gas, transportation and refining sectors, they said. Still, they acknowledged much work remains to be done.
"The culture won’t change overnight," said Wyoming Department of Workforce Services Director Joan Evans.
Dan Neal, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center, said higher fines and more inspectors are needed for Wyoming's numbers to improve. While the state has added inspectors, it still has only 13 people checking safety standards. Seven of those are "courtesy inspectors," who are invited by employers to inspect their job sites and point out violations. Employers are not fined for being out of compliance in such instances and are instead required to correct the problem.
Higher fines are needed if real change is to be made in companies' behavior, Neal said. He likened the situation to a speeding ticket. Just as a person ticketed for speeding slows down afterward, higher fines change companies' behavior. Sinclair's refinery near Rawlins is an example, he said, noting that the Utah-based company has started working with the state after several hefty fines. The Equality State Policy Center released a report on the issue Monday to coincide with events in Cheyenne.
"We think people should be alarmed that so many people are getting killed at work," Neal said. "We’re trying to get people to recognize we can work just as hard, we can be just as productive, but we have to work in a way that makes sure everyone who goes to work comes home whole and alive."
Evans was noncommittal on the subject of higher fines. She said while higher fines were not the department's recommendation, "we realize that might be a component of an overall solution."