Read more about Wyoming Workplace Fatalities here.
State eyes changes to oil and gas safety rules
As Wyoming strives to improve safety and health in the workplace, the state continues to be plagued by accidents in the oil and gas industry.
The Sinclair refinery at Sinclair, east of Rawlins, experienced two fires in May that injured six workers. Four were burned severely. In the last three months of 2011, OSHA conducted a safety audit of the refinery. Its inspectors witnessed fires and spotted a number of documented several violations of safe operating rules.
Then on Aug. 22, 2012, four men were burned in an explosion at the ConocoPhillips Lost Cabin gas plant near Lysite, east of Shoshoni. Two suffered “extremely critical” injuries, a according to a captain with the Fremont County Sheriff’s Office.
State refinery operators since have met with Gov. Matt Mead and declared their intention to form an alliance to improve safety. Meanwhile, Wyoming OSHA has taken some action against Sinclair. In September, OSHA announced that it has fined the Sinclair Oil Refinery $60,000 for the May 25 fire that injured two workers. The first fire remains under investigation.
Fire is always a risk in the production and processing of fossil fuels. The Wyoming Occupational Safety and Health Commission recently proposed amendments to its oil and gas industry safety rules that will require workers at drilling sites to wear certified fire retardant clothing while working within 75 feet of the well bore. The amendments also call for shut-down devices on diesel engines use on or near the rig. The ESPC offered testimony supporting the new rules, as did several national allies involved in promoting the safety and health of all workers in the U.S.
The proposed rules will be the subject of a public hearing Oct. 5 in Casper. The hearing begins at 9 a.m. at the Wyoming Oil & Gas Conservation Commission Building, 2211 King Boulevard.
The ESPC submitted written comments supporting the amendments. We specifically support tying the standards for fire-resistant clothing to the latest improvements approved by the National Fire Protection Association. Those standards are developed by a committee of more than 7,000 volunteer industry experts. The NFPA notes committee members bring “a wide range of professional expertise” to its process.
Meanwhile, the ESPC will push state OSHA to develop standards to limit the exposure of rig workers to silica dust during hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health last spring released data from a long study of what is commonly known as “fracking” and found that rig works were exposed to air with more than 28 times the allowable exposure level to silica. Industry officials this summer acknowledged the problem and expressed interest in developing a rule in Wyoming.
Sweeping changes needed to protect Wyo workers
State can speak softly, but must start swinging the stick
Wyoming’s appalling job fatality rate requires forceful action by the state, not simply more data gathering and courtesy inspections as recommended by the state’s epidemiologist, Dr. Tim Ryan.
State leaders need to summon the will to exercise both their moral and legal authority to change the workplace culture that has killed more than 600 Wyoming workers since 1992 and maimed and injured many more.
Dr. Ryan issued his memorandum to the governor on Dec. 19, and then quit to work in the private sector. The initial response from the governor and industry indicated little would be done. They promised to continue gathering and monitoring data and asking industry to submit to “courtesy inspections” that allow OSHA inspectors to point out safety violations without risk of citation. This essentially means an extension of the status quo, which will mean more Wyoming families will see people injured and killed.
Few companies have availed themselves of the courtesy inspections offered by the state, according to Dr. Ryan’s report. Worse, OSHA does not have the inspector available if more companies suddenly did ask inspectors to come check out their job sites.
It’s time to stop this playing of dice with workers’ lives.
The Equality State Policy Center, the Wyoming State AFL-CIO, the Spence Association for Employee Rights (SAFER) and the Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association launched a campaign calling for sweeping changes. In a news release issued Jan. 6, the coalition called for rigorous enforcement of state safety law, hiring more OSHA inspectors to conduct both courtesy and surprise inspections, and making company injury records public.
The media responded and both WyoFile and the Casper Star-Tribune published stories Jan. 7.
Subsequent meetings Jan. 19 with Department of Workforce Services Director Joan Evans and staffers in Gov. Mead’s were fruitful. Director Evans noted that she could shift resources in the department to provide three more inspectors to conduct courtesy inspections. The governor subsequently announced his support for that move and plans to seek legislative approval to hire five more inspectors.
Only one of those inspectors will be devoted to compliance, however, which is a disappointment.
The ESPC and its allies believe that stronger enforcement, including surprise inspections and bigger fines for violating safety rules, is absolutely essential to building a culture of safety in the state, saving workers’ lives and reducing the number of people severely injured at work. Others hold this view, including the Casper Star-Tribune.
Injured workers win improved benefits.
In our view, the biggest accomplishment of the 2009 General Session of the Wyoming Legislature was passage of the workers’ compensation reform bill (HB 54), making numerous changes to a system that was rife with injustice for workers injured on the job, particularly those with permanent partial or total disability.
Cheyenne attorney George Santini, right, has represented Richard Johnson, a worker injured more than 20 years ago. Johnson testified before the Senate Labor Committee to encourage adoption of a cost of living adjustment to permanent disability benefits.
The new law increases death and permanent impairment benefits, including benefits for surviving children; provides a minimum and extends the duration of temporary total disability benefits; provides an annual cost of living adjustment to permanent total disability benefits; extends the maximum duration of vocational rehabilitation benefits; extends the period over which death benefits are paid; limits the time for the Workers’ Compensation Division to recover overpayments; requires the state to pay a fair share of the costs of litigation when covered workers recover damages from third parties; and requires the division to reconsider claims if an injured worker’s failure to meet a procedural deadline is the fault of the worker’s attorney. The bill also appropriates $150,000 to the Office of Administrative Hearings to determine how to modernize office operations and it authorizes hiring one additional hearing officer.
Mark Aronowitz Lawyers and Advocates for Wyoming
Our thanks to all the injured workers, union leaders, and members of the Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association (WTLA) who worked so hard to get this done. We need to single out work by Kim Floyd of the AFL-CIO, Marcia Shanor and George Santini of the WTLA, and Mark Aronowitz of Lawyers and Advocates for Wyoming. This truly was a cooperative effort by many people, however, including many who have been injured on the job or who have seen family members and friends killed or injured.
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