In light of the Casper Star-Tribune’s Dec. 5 editorial “Why no state inspections?” the Department of Workforce Services would like to take the opportunity to provide clarity regarding priority of compliance inspections performed by the Wyoming Occupational Safety and Health Administration division.

OSHA deploys its nine compliance inspectors as strategically as possible. The division cannot foresee where a fatality will occur, so it utilizes the next best thing – data – to identify where inspections are most critical. This information comes from the department’s Workers’ Compensation division and helps determine which employers should receive an unannounced compliance inspection. This data-driven approach identifies employers operating the most at-risk workplaces. Additionally, federal OSHA places immediate (and federally required) priority on inspections relating to a fatality, employee reports of imminent danger or an incident involving multiple serious injuries. By federal law, these particular incidents take precedence over the data-driven inspections and require immediate checks.

In the case of the Lovell Western Sugar Cooperative facility, workers’ compensation data show that the workplace had a significantly lower-than-average injury rate prior to the fatality in question. Workplaces that the data identified as high-risk took precedence for an inspection.

The Casper Star Editorial Board relied on a hypothetical situation implying that an OSHA inspection at some point in time would have prevented the tragic death at the Lovell Western Sugar Cooperative facility in January. Utilizing that line of thinking, it is only fair to consider a different perspective: which high-risk workplace inspection would OSHA have had to forgo to inspect a lower-risk workplace?

Inspections alone do not prevent workplace fatalities. People prevent workplace fatalities.

Wyoming OSHA is a state-run division that diligently works day and night to enforce workplace safety laws, support businesses, and address workers’ concerns. To the greatest extent possible, OSHA staff utilizes the resources available to support its mission. Realistically, just as there is not a highway patrolman available to pull over every vehicle on the road, there is not an OSHA compliance officer available to perform a compliance check on every Wyoming business. Wyoming is not alone on this front. In fact, the assistant secretary of federal OSHA has often said that throughout the country, it would take close to 100 years to inspect every workplace once.

Ultimately, it is the employer’s responsibility to follow the law and provide a safe workplace for employees. Just as important, employees must be vigilant about safe work practices. OSHA also ensures support and protection for whistleblowers.

Wyoming OSHA is adamant about applying the maximum state fine possible in workplace incidents involving fatalities – the fine amount which mirrors federal OSHA fines. One important component to note that often gets overlooked is that OSHA only has the authority to fine based on the violation found; it does not have the authority to penalize employers based upon the outcome of the violation, such as an injury or death.

According to the most recent data available, there are 25,487 employers in Wyoming. Of these employers, the OSHA compliance division does not have jurisdiction over railroads, vehicles operating on public roads, federal workplaces, mines, and certain agriculture operations, among others. All of these industries require a special focus on workplace safety.

In 2012, with the support of Governor Mead, the Wyoming Legislature passed a bill that added seven OSHA safety consultants to DWS. These additional seven new consultants received extensive training and have been working with employers since 2013 to make their work environments safer. These individuals have boosted OSHA’s reach tremendously. The legislation also created a fund to assist businesses that want to go above and beyond to enhance safety in their work environments. The state occupational epidemiologist has developed a first-of-its-kind surveillance system to pinpoint where injuries and deaths are happening and why –information not previously available in Wyoming. Additionally, in 2013, the Legislature created a program which provides workers’ compensation premium reductions for employers willing to participate in health and safety consultations.

Many Wyoming industries have stepped up to the plate to identify and address safety challenges from within. These safety groups, starting with Wyoming’s flagship alliance, the Wyoming Oil and Gas Industry Safety Alliance, led the way for the formation of the Wyoming Refining Safety Alliance, the Transportation Safety Coalition and the newly formed Construction Safety Alliance.

Any workplace fatality is one too many, and OSHA is open to new ideas, approaches and suggestions as Wyoming continues to move forward on making progress on the important issue of workplace safety. OSHA is committed to working with our partners in safety and welcomes new partnerships. Most agree that workplace safety cannot fall on the shoulders of OSHA alone. We must be in this together.

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Joan Evans of Cheyenne is the director of the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services.