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Sen. Eli Bebout

Bebout

A proposal to increase workplace fatality fines has met a formidable roadblock: Senate Majority Leader Eli Bebout. 

Bebout has not allowed the proposal to come before the Senate for debate. The bill will die if it does not reach the Senate floor before Friday. 

In an interview Tuesday, Bebout said he had not decided whether to allow debate on the bill. He expressed unease with the pace of its progression through committee, saying employers were not given adequate time to comment on the measure prior to reaching the Senate floor. The bill was first debated in September. 

"It is a matter of being able to do it and do it fairly," Bebout said. 

The move prompted a scramble in the House among the bill's supporters.  

State Rep. Mary Throne, a Cheyenne Democrat, introduced a proposal calling for a minimum fine of $50,000 and maximum fine of $250,000 for a safety violation resulting in a fatality. Businesses with less than 25 employees would face a minimum penalty of $25,000.  

The bill would also raise fines for other safety violations. 

Wyoming has taken steps to increase safety consultations, boost the number of inspectors and provide funding to encourage companies to employ innovative safety strategies. Fines remain the missing piece in the puzzle, she said. 

"I’ve said it a million times: You have to have carrots and sticks," Throne said. 

Her proposal would need to clear the House Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee by Friday in order to stay alive. 

Wyoming has long been ranked as one of the most dangerous states in the country to work. It had the highest fatality rate in the nation five times between 2003 and 2008.

The state's safety record improved in 2013 when the number of on-the-job deaths fell to 21, down from the 31 in 2012. However, that number is expected to rise following a spate of accidents in 2014. 

In 2013, the average fine for a workplace safety violation leading to a death in Wyoming was $9,554, according to federal statistics compiled by the AFL-CIO, a union. The national average that year was $9,750.

The push for higher fines in Wyoming began in the fall. A Ranchester family that lost a relative in a 2012 construction accident proposed fining companies an automatic $50,000 for violations resulting in accidents.

The Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Interim Committee passed an updated version of that bill in December. The proposal called for a maximum penalty of $50,000 for companies of 250 employees or less and $250,000 for larger companies.

The Senate committee amended the bill again last month, ensuring a penalty could be imposed only if it was proven that an employer "willfully and knowingly" committed a violation.

The language stripped the bill of any meaning, said State Sen. Charlie Scott, R-Casper, who championed the bill in the Senate. Scott ultimately cast the lone dissenting vote against the measure in committee.

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"I thought a major safety violation and death should be enough to trigger the fine," Scott said. 

Of Bebout's move to block debate, he added: "I’m not as displeased as I might be with what the majority leader is doing, and I don’t think I have the votes to fix it."

She echoed Scott's disappointment in the Senate bill, saying the proposal had been stripped of its intent. Collins expressed hope Throne's bill would reach the House floor for debate but said she is committed to returning next year if it fails to pass.   

"If it dies on the vine this year, we’ll try again next year, and we’ll see how many people die in the workplace in Wyoming in the meantime," she said. "I’m not going to give up, because I think the state needs it."

Bebout said he would support studying the bill in the coming interim period. The Senate majority leader noted he owns an oil and gas drilling firm and once lost an employee in a transportation accident. 

"There is nothing worse," he said. 

A collaborative approach to work place safety is preferable to levying fines, he said. Still, Bebout said a well-thought-out plan could help the state further address safety issues. Lawmakers need more time to study the issue and craft a response, he argued.  

"You’d rather do that than have a bill you regret later on," Bebout said.

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Reach energy reporter Benjamin Storrow at 307-335-5344 or benjamin.storrow@trib.com. Follow him on Twitter @bstorrow.

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