It's certainly understandable to blame at Western Sugar Cooperative for the death of employee Anfesa Galaktionoff, 28. Galaktionoff died in January at the cooperative’s sugar beet processing plant in Lovell after falling through an open floor panel into a water system. According to the Lovell Chronicle, emergency services workers struggled to remove her body from the water as a cold front bore down.
Now, nearly a year later, Denver-based Western Sugar has agreed to pay a $7,000 fine for leaving the panel open, and $37,500 for other violations. Employees will take 30 hours of safety training and the co-op will periodically self-inspect and report back to the state. Case closed, right?
No, not at all.
Certainly the co-op bears responsibility for its lack of safe working conditions. But what responsibility does the state of Wyoming bear? State officials said this summer that no state inspectors had ever visited the plant. Zero visits, zero inspections. Is it any wonder conditions at the plant were poor enough to get someone killed?
The sugar beet plant in Lovell was built in 1916. Western Sugar took possession of the plant in 2002. Whether it's been nearly a century or a dozen year, we still struggle to understand how an industrial facility doesn't get an inspection. It's not an accountant's office. The plant is a place with equipment that can drown, maim and kill workers.
Wyoming safety officials must hold the cooperative accountable to save workers’ lives. But that starts with actually inspecting the co-op’s facility. This summer, officials said their small group of compliance inspectors (nine at that point) do conduct unannounced inspections of 23,000 employers in the state, totalling about 300 inspections in 2013 including responses to complaints and fatalities .
We need to hear some answers from the state. Why was the co-op’s plant in Lovell never inspected? Are there other industrial facilities in the state that have never gotten a once-over? What’s the plan to avoid such oversight into the future?
Wyoming's struggles with workplace fatality rates are well documented. The state regularly ranks high in the number of workers dying on the job per capita. Wyoming leaders aren't ignorant of this fact. In recent years, both Gov. Matt Mead and the Legislature have boosted the ranks of the state's workplace inspectors and taken other measures to better understand the threat and help companies help themselves. We've encouraged these moves. Yet it's thoroughly discouraging to hear of an industrial facility that apparently fell through the cracks, resulting in a worker falling to her death.
While state officials weren't inspecting the facility, Montana officials were busy fining the co-op -- before someone died, in fact. Last year, safety inspectors in that state busted the co-op for alleged repeat safety violations, including failure to install guard rails on elevated platforms found in a January 2013 inspection. The co-op eventually was fined $117,250. Last year, Montana's Occupational Safety and Health Administration office said OSHA found 30 safety violations in 16 inspections of Western Sugar operations in four states, including Wyoming. The co-op has a plant in Torrington, too, which apparently got a once-over. But somehow the Lovell plant didn't get an inspection.
We've reported previously on the shortage of state workplace safety inspectors. For state officials, the inspector shortage is a real problem. It's difficult for the state to retain its inspection staff when similar but more lucrative jobs exist in the private sector.
But to never inspect the Lovell sugar beet processing facility? How does that happen?