Wyoming politicians often like to brag about how the state is one of the most “business friendly” in the nation, as if achieving that reputation should be the top goal of government.
Why doesn’t Wyoming strive to become the state that holds businesses the most accountable for their actions? The state could still treat industries that choose to do business here well, but when companies make mistakes that cost people’s lives, they should be punished.
The fines companies now pay for safety violations that result in workers’ deaths are obscenely low — and they routinely get even smaller as their lawyers talk state regulators into reducing the total amount.
Brett Collins, 20, was killed on-the-job at a construction site on Aug. 20, 2012. A member of a COP Construction crew putting in a new underground holding tank at the Big Goose Water Treatment Plant, Collins was struck in the head with the bucket of a trackhoe.
The Wyoming Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) cited Collins’ company for five serious safety violations that allegedly played a role in his death. The fine the state agency initially imposed was $13,860.
After more than a year of negotiations, OSHA dropped two of the violations completely and lowered the amount of the fine to $6,733.
“That’s less than the price of a used car,” said the victim’s outraged grandmother, Mary Jane Collins of Sheridan. She and her family decided something had to be done to protect workers and make companies accountable for safety violations that kill their employees. One deterrent proven to be effective is hitting them in their wallet.
In testimony to the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Committee in the fall of 2014, Collins proposed a bill that would impose a non-negotiable fine of $50,000 on companies found to have violated safety rules and regulations that resulted in a worker’s death. The lack of due process to challenge a fine concerned some members of the panel. Still, they passed the bill after amending that provision.
Under Senate File 72, businesses with less than 250 workers would be fined up to $50,000 for the death of a worker due to a serious OSHA violation. Firms with more than 250 workers would be penalized up to $250,000.
SF 72 cleared its first hurdle when the Senate Labor Committee voted 4-1 to recommend passage to the full Senate. The only lawmaker to vote against it was the committee’s chairman, Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper), the longest-serving legislator in the state’s history.
But on its way to the Senate floor for the debate it merited, SF 72 was derailed by Senate Majority Floor Leader Eli Bebout (R-Riverton), who controls the Senate’s agenda by deciding which proposals get heard. Bebout simply held the bill until time ran out for it to be considered, so it officially died.
This was hardly a new issue. Wyoming has been trying to lower its worst-in-the-nation worker fatality rate for the past decade, to no avail. Four years ago, after surprisingly getting the Wyoming oil and gas industry and other businesses to sign off on a proposal that increased OSHA penalties, a bill sponsored by Rep. Mary Throne (D-Cheyenne) seemed to have enough bipartisan support from lawmakers and influential lobbyists to get it through the Legislature.
The Senate killed that bill, too.
Those defeats hurt, but what proponents really found offensive this year was Bebout’s explanation about why he single-handedly killed the Labor Committee’s bill. The conservative, veteran lawmaker claimed the legislation had moved through the process too quickly, and the issue needed more time to be studied.
Three state occupational epidemiologists have already made exhaustive studies of the problem, and one quit because of the Legislature’s inaction. Like other safety experts, committees and even industry leaders, their top recommendation to the Legislature was to raise the fines.
How many workers need to die because of unsafe conditions caused by employers before Republican legislative leaders like Bebout are forced to stop ignoring the problem? Is maintaining Wyoming’s business-friendly reputation so important to the state that the Legislature will never seriously consider raising OSHA fines?
If so, let everyone know now, so skilled workers residing elsewhere can decide if they want to risk their lives and livelihoods by moving and toiling in a state that shows no commitment and respect for workers’ safety. It’s the very least we can do.
Collins, speaking at a national teleconference promoting the April 28 Workers’ Memorial Day last week, said the bill’s sponsors told her lawmakers were afraid of the negative impact SF 72 might have on small businesses.
“We’re not trying to put anyone out of business,” she said. “But the severity of the penalty should be equal to the severity of the violation. … Unsafe work practices should not be rewarded by negotiations.”
Collins said her grandson was working at the construction job to put himself through school. Before his death, he had been scheduled to go back to college in only two days.
“My life and my family’s lives were forever changed in that instant,” she said. And because powerful lawmakers have the ability to keep OSHA fines ridiculously low, there is no monetary deterrent large enough to make businesses stop violating safety regulations.
Six thousand dollars is apparently all a 20-year-old man’s life is worth to this state. We should all be insulted by that. Will Wyoming ever treat workers as well as it does the businesses in this state?
It’s a rhetorical question.
Nevertheless, safety proponents are still trying to improve the system and fight the good fight. At 10 a.m. Tuesday, April 28, they will gather for the annual Wyoming Workers’ Memorial Day ceremony at the Capitol in Cheyenne, where all fallen workers will be honored.
Featured at the event will be Gov. Matt Mead, House Minority Floor Leader Mary Throne and State Epidemiologist Meredith Towle, as well as families of workers who have been killed on the job. The ceremony is sponsored by the Equality State Policy Center.
Kerry Drake is the political director of Better Wyoming. A veteran Wyoming journalist, he lives in Casper.