In the context of 4,383 workplace fatalities nationwide last year, 35 job-related deaths in Wyoming might seem like a small number. But as the EHS community knows all-too-well – as do the families of the victims – one work-related death is one too many.
And for a state as sparsely populated as Wyoming – it is the nation's smallest state, by population – 35 deaths is a big number.
For many of us who don't live in Wyoming, the thing we associate most with the state is the stunning natural beauty of Yellowstone or Grand Teton National Park. I visited both parks last year (my first trip to Wyoming) and saw a large swath of the state while driving from Denver to Jackson Hole. The drive was almost as spectacular as the backcountry hiking in the national parks.
Wyoming's breathtaking landscape and abundance of natural resources – it is the nation's biggest producer of coal and among the biggest producers of natural gas – are both a blessing and a curse. A new report from the state's occupational epidemiologist attributes Wyoming's historically high rate of workplace fatalities to the large proportion of workers in high-risk occupations such as agriculture, mining and oil and gas extraction.
"The unique combination of Wyoming's prevalent industries, its climate and geography create challenges for safe working environments," explained state occupational epidemiologist Dr. C. Mack Sewell. "It is my hope that this report will provide insight into areas where improvement needs to be made."
Position Created in 2010
Former Gov. Dave Freudenthal created the state-level epidemiologist position in 2010 to monitor and investigate fatalities that occur at Wyoming work sites. Although it was a noble idea, there have been some notable hiccups. The state's first occupational epidemiologist, Dr. Timothy Ryan, reportedly quit because he claimed that the state legislature wouldn't pass expanded workplace-safety protections.
Still, there are signs that the state's consistently high fatality and injury rates are galvanizing stakeholders to take action.
Over the past few years, the state has formed several workplace-safety groups, including the Wyoming Oil and Gas Industry Safety Alliance, the Wyoming Refinery Safety Alliance and the Transportation Safety Coalition. "Each group has identified needs in its respective industry to improve the safety culture and wellbeing of workers," Mack Sewell notes in his report.
A construction-safety group is in development as well, "along with efforts to connect individuals involved with agriculture through the University of Wyoming Agriculture Extension Services," Sewell points out.
In 2012, the Wyoming Legislature provided Wyoming OSHA with seven additional safety consultants – effectively doubling the number of state OSHA personnel capable of providing voluntary consultations to Wyoming employers. The legislation also earmarked $500,000 for a program administered by the state Department of Workforce Services that provides employers with up to $10,000 to buy safety equipment or safety training that goes above and beyond OSHA requirements.
Earlier this year, the state legislature created a program within the Department of Workforce Services to provide reductions in workers' compensation premiums for employers that participate in health and safety consultations.
'All Carrot, No Stick'
Not all stakeholders are sold on the state's commitment. When the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released its preliminary 2012 data on workplace fatalities in August, the Spence Association for Employee Rights (SAFER), a law firm that represents injured workers, noted that Wyoming's 35 deaths was the state's highest death total since 2007.
"In recent years the Wyoming Legislature has confronted Wyoming's historically deplorable workplace-safety record with an all-carrot-no-stick approach," the law firm asserted in a news release.
Still, while SAFER noted that it is "skeptical that money and voluntary consultations alone will cure" Wyoming's safety record, the law firm said it is "optimistic that these programs are steps in the right direction and, given their newness, recognize that they deserve time to be fully implemented prior to judging their effectiveness."
A high level of risk might be intrinsic to Wyoming's geography and prevalent industries. But as EHS professionals know, the most powerful way to make a work environment safer is to create a culture in which workplace safety is a core value that's embedded into the daily habits of the workforce.
It also happens to be the most challenging way to create a safe work environment.
"We know that changing the culture of safety will not happen overnight," said Joan Evans, director of the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services. "The surveillance system developed by Dr. Sewell is the first of its kind in Wyoming and I believe it is a step in the right direction for making important changes in workplace safety in our state."
To outsiders, it might seem like Wyoming is taking baby steps. But as the old saying goes, the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. As someone who has hiked a few miles in Wyoming's breathtaking wilderness, I'm hopeful that the state indeed is heading in the right direction.