Workplace safety gains momentum

Minerals Committee members Sens. Chris Rothfuss, Hank Coe, Eli Bebout, and Kit Jennings (back to camera).

Job safety bill sent to Senate floor

Minerals doubles funding for grants to $500,000

It looks like the Wyoming Legislature will step up to promote job safety so that more workers come home from their jobs unharmed. In eight of the last nine years, Wyoming has had the worst or second-worst job fatality rate in the nation. Wyoming avereaged a fatality every 10 days over the past 10 years. While workplace injuries overall have declined in recent years, a December report from the state epidemiologist reveals that the number of injuries requiring amputations and requiring hospitalization have increased. Witnesses representing unions, civil justice organizations, the oil and gas industry, the Wyoming Mining Association, and the Governor’s office testified in favor of the bill, House Bill 80 – Workplace safety – employer assistance, during a Friday lunch-hour meeting of the Senate Minerals Committee. No one opposed it.

Senate Appropriations Committee at work March 2

The committee approved the measure on a 5-0 vote. The Senate Appropriations Committee reviewed and approved the funding proposed in the bill Friday afternoon. The quick action assured that the bill met the Legislature’s deadline requiring bills to be reported out of committee in the second house by the end of day March 2. The bill authorizes the expansion of the Division of Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) by adding five “courtesy consultants” and directing the Department of Workforce Services to transfer two positions to add two more consultants. Those consultants will work with businesses to develop safety programs. Companies can invite them to a job site to point out violations of safety law without fear of being fined for the violations. The companies must agree to correct the hazards. Increasing the number of courtesy consultants to seven will enable OSHA to respond to requests for courtesy inspections within 30 days, according to the bill’s primary sponsor, House Majority Leader Tom Lubnau of Gillette. The new legislation also will provide matching grants to companies to subsidize purchases of safety equipment. The Senate Minerals Committee amended the bill to double the grant funds from $250,000 to $500,000. The money, including about $1.3 million to pay for the five new courtesy consultants, their regionally based offices, and travel, will be taken from the Industrial Accident Fund. Commonly known as the “Workers’ Compensation Fund,” it derives income from Workers’ Compensation Insurance premiums paid by employers. The fund is used to pay for medical treatment of injured workers, disability payments, and compensation to families of workers killed on the job. When the doubling of grant funds was reviewed by the Appropriations Committee, Chairman Phil Nicholas, known for closely scrutinizing spending, immediately recognized its value: a successful safety program will save money by reducing the number of deaths and injuries. Worker safety advocates, including the Equality State Policy Center, see the bill as an important first step. They told the Minerals Committee that they believe more needs to be done, however, and pointed to the Mining Safety and Health Administration’s considerable success in reducing injuries in mines across the country. The MSHA program works because it keeps enforcement inspectors on the job and it can and does impose significant fines for violations. Wyoming’s OSHA office will have 13 inspectors and consultants if the HB89 passes in its current form, MSHA has 40 enforcement inspectors covering some 18,000 workers in mines across the state. According to Mark Aronowitz, who testified for the Spence Association for Employee Rights, those inspectors include:
  • Nine inspectors in the Gillette MSHA office;
  • Nine inspectors in the Green River office;
  • MSHA District 9 office in Colorado has 7 inspectors who visit and inspect Wyo mines;
  • The Salt Lake City MSHA office has 11inspectors who visit and inspect Wyo mines;
  • The Rapid City MSHA office has inspectors who frequently visit and inspect Wyo mines.
One inspector told Aronowitz, “There’s eyes on everybody to do the right thing all the time.” Kim Floyd of the AFL-CIO, said the bill also can be considered a jobs bill. Smaller companies with safety programs have a better chance of landing contracts with the major energy companies working in Wyoming, he said. The safety grants will help the smaller companies build their own safety programs, land contracts and provide jobs for Wyoming workers, he said. For the record, industry supporters of the bill included Bruce Hinchey, director of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, who said, “We wholeheartedly support the bill.” Nick Agopian of Devon Energy and Marion Loomis of the Wyoming Mining Association likewise endorsed it.

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